Paul McCarthy

Starting in the late sixties, Paul McCarthy incorporated performative elements in his oeuvre. During the early seventies he created a vast production of performances that seem to recall Viennese Actionism, the Grand Guignol, and the most outrageous slapstick comedies: an accumulation of bodies, emphasized in their more organic and physiological dimensions, prostheses in plastic, masks, liquids, and foods characterize the artist’s imagery. Generally developed almost in a state of trance and held in front of an audience that is invited to stay close to the performer, the atmosphere of these events condenses a sense of sinister humor and unleashes anxiety, psychic frustrations, and repressed sexual desires.
From the very beginning, video has accompanied and documented all of his most important works. However, after 1984—when McCarthy decided to stop presenting live performances—the use of video became more prominent and was included in the artist’s composite installations. In these works, screens and projections broadcast the artist’s pitiless rereading of characters and fairy tales in a playfully subversive and liberating key. Heidi, Pinocchio (via Walt Disney), or Santa Claus are only some of the comical and violently effective re-inventions that McCarthy imagines with the participation of actors and actresses. The particular attention given to the role of the spectators—always understood as being voyeurs—often results in their not only having to spy on the actions from peepholes, but also at times having to wear clothing connected to the situations that are staged.
In the early eighties, the artist embarked upon a series of collaborations with Mike Kelley (Wayne, Michigan, 1954), an artist, performer, musician, and creator of complex installations. The works entitled Family Tyranny / Cultural Soup, Heidi, Fresh Acconci, and Out O’ Actions demonstrate the energetic exchange between the two artists who share the same fascination for the most disturbing aspects of mass culture and urban myths from which they extrapolate the most repressed and hidden components. [F.B.]

List of Works

Black and White Tapes, 1970–1975
video, black and white, sound, 32 min. 50 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
The result of a series of intense performances, this collection prepared by the artist concentrates on the human body seen as a primary means and instrument in the process of artistic creation. Interacting with the color in its most physical and material form, McCarthy carries out some actions that create an overbearingly physical and violently unexpected impact: for example, in transforming himself into a living paintbrush, he smears an entire can of paint on the floor by dragging himself across it.

Sailor’s Meat, Sailor’s Delight, 1975
video, color, sound, 44 min. 20 sec.
Fondazione CRT Project for Modern and Contemporary Art
A video taken from a live performance, this work is one of McCarthy’s first and most complete audiovisual creations. Lying on a bed the performer wears only a blond wig, thus exemplifying the stereotyped erotic symbol of the woman who populates the fantasies of the average man (the sailor of the title). In an onanistic crescendo, which borders on the horrific and, at the same time, the ridiculous, he covers his body with mayonnaise and ketchup. The visceral abject materiality of the smeared substances brings to mind body fluids.

Tubbing, 1975–1976
video, color, sound, 26 min. 59 sec.
Fondazione CRT Project for Modern and Contemporary Art
Inside a bathtub the performer wears only a long platinum-blond wig. He begins a series of actions using cream, ketchup, and sausages, which he puts on himself in a crescendo of auto-erotic delirium.

Family Tyranny / Cultural Soup, 1987
in collaboration with Mike Kelley
video, color, sound, 15 min. 03 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Family Tyranny (Modeling and Molding), 1987
video, color, sound, 8 min. 08 sec.
Cultural Soup, 1987
video, color, sound, 6 min. 55 sec.
In McCarthy’s own words: “I was given access to a community television studio for two days of shooting and one day of editing . . . [in order] to do a video tape on child abuse. I taped for one day alone and one day with Mike Kelley. I asked Mike Kelley to be the son and I would be the father. There was no written script. After taping for two days I edited the tapes, making two separate tapes.”

Heidi, 1992
in collaboration with Mike Kelley
video, color, sound, 62 min. 40 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
The work is a tribute to, as well as a drastic rereading of, the famous novel Heidi by Joanna Spyri. In this version marked by horrific tones, the grandfather becomes a monstrous maniac, Peter seems mentally disturbed, and Heidi is elevated to the role of a pure little girl.

Fresh Acconci, 1995
in collaboration with Mike Kelley
video, color, sound, 45 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Through the presence and bodies of young male and female models in a setting that is intentionally glossy and similar to Californian erotic cinema, McCarthy restages some videos of the early seventies by Vito Acconci. including Claim Excerpts, Focal Points, Pryings, and Theme Song.

Out O’ Actions, 1998
in collaboration with Mike Kelley
video, color, sound, 4 min. 25 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Adopting a type of editing similar to the filming of the 1964 performance by Otto Muehl entitled Mama und Papa, this work records the installation process of the work made by McCarthy and Kelley for the exhibition held at the MOCA in Los Angeles, Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949–1979.

Artworks