I never much cottoned to Paul McCarthy, but Train, Mechanical (2003-2010), part of “Paul McCarthy: Three Sculptures,” which inaugurates the new Los Angeles gallery of New York-based L & M Arts, has made me a reluctant fan. The grotesque sculpture is a robotic double image of George W. Bush copulating with a pig, just the sort of shock-schlock that McCarthy has made his stock in trade. While I generally have no patience for any of his slovenly garbage, this new work may well be a masterpiece of political agitprop: an appalling satire that captures as no other the revulsion and rage engendered worldwide by the long, dark tenure of our 43rd president.
The spectacle consists of a row of motorized, life-sized animatrons of Bush and hogs, their mechanical armatures covered with pink fleshlike resin. The Bush figures’ hips pump as their oversized heads turn from side to side, periodically spinning full circle, “Exorcist”-style, lips parting in orgasmic reverie. The daisy chain continues as the pigs in turn are penetrated in the ear by piglets. The ghastly contraption is set atop a metal frame containing the computerized machine that automates it. No need to belabor a close reading here: the figures, self-absorbed in bestial depravity, represent the utter debasement of statesmanship, democracy, and truth that marked the Bush years.
I am not suggesting that the piece is an aesthetic, intellectual, or spiritual achievement of any distinction. McCarthy’s cartoonish imagery operates with all the nuance of a raised middle finger. And the sculpture’s kinetic action, by robotic standards, is merely adequate. But the tableau rings an emotional chord of unexpectedly powerful resonance even two years after Bush left office. Why? Because while in many ways it represents everything I loathe in contemporary art, it nevertheless slakes an ongoing thirst for public rebuke of the Bush regime. With occasional exceptions, such as Richard Serra’s “Stop Bush” poster depicting a hooded prisoner at Abu Ghraib, artists were regrettably feeble in response to the Bush scourge. The likelihood that McCarthy’s sculpture will prompt future art historians to re-examine the political acts that fostered its creation is priceless.
But let’s be clear about the artistic value of McCarthy’s oeuvre. Videos of him and his cohorts slathering one another with Bosco and ketchup have been interpreted as raucous send-ups of Action Painting and transgressions in the mode of the Vienna Actionists, but art history is at best ancillary to what are essentially puerile Dionysian festivals of goo. His gigantic bronzes and inflatable-rubber Santas and Pinocchios adorned with sex toys have been lauded as lampoons of our idiotic culture, but they are idiotic themselves, exercises in warmed over Surrealism that fail to reward prolonged attention. Indeed, McCarthy’s obscene clownery pollutes the art world, posing as critique while feeding the market’s maw. But in Bush the artist has found a subject appropriate to his vulgar form.
In many countries the portrayal of a (former) president astride the rear of a corpulent hog would be criminal. But the U.S. embraces such insults to decorum as long as they sell, and rest assured some wealthy collector can be expected to pay the $5 million dollars that L & M is asking for the unique piece. McCarthy took up the Bush theme while the president was in office, exhibiting static variants of the present sculpture at the SMAK in Ghent in 2007, and two years later at Hauser & Wirth in Zurich. Many of those have been acquired by private and museum collections around the world, including a version in foam that was displayed by French billionaire François Pinault, the owner of Christie’s auction house, in his foundation in Venice during the last Biennale.
The motorization of the image is what’s key here, and the highlight of the 65-year-old McCarthy’s first exhibition in his hometown in a decade. The two other pieces at L & M are colossal clusters of figures based on mid-century German Hummel figurines, kitsch images of children that McCarthy lumps together in deformed masses. They fill a rowboat in the more engaging work, “Ship of Fools, Ship Adrift” (2010), a massive bronze patinated in oily black that, despite its size and ambition, lacks the gravitas and elegance of the great allegories of human folly and perdition, such as Breugel’s Blind Leading the Blind or Goya’s dog. But then, to judge by his portrayals of Bush, McCarthy is not an artist that lets gravitas and elegance get in the way of a bawdy joke.Modern Painters on line on October 7, 2010.