Paul McCarthy: Three Sculptures
(Reprinted from Artslant.com)
I wonder if there could be a book length treatment of the pathetic. Books on the abject, sincerity, authenticity, the uncanny, and other elusive descriptors exist, but nothing I can find on the pathetic. You would think it would be fodder for a class warrior Marxist critic who could point to moments of sympathy, pity, and sadness that arise in person of privileged position due to the actions of someone in a low state or lower class, someone overly earnest, overly awkward, someone striving when they have no chance at nobility or proper recognition outside of their own fantasies. We on the outside, with knowledge of the societal frameworks that are producing the striving person’s embarrassing display, stand over the person and simply judge, “You’re pathetic.”
My first encounter in art with the pathetic was in Crime and Punishment, when I became overwhelmed with sadness and pity for Katerina Ivanovna, wife of the alcoholic Marmeladov, when she, once proud of her aristocratic heritage, parades her children through the street, singing wildly, and begging for money. The performance is dignified for Katerina but it is the reader who knows how far she has fallen in life. Another encounter with pathetic came when aristocrats shovel high quality oysters down the throat of a young boy in Chekhov’s masterwork story Oysters. Feeding the starved child is perverse sport for the rich and, of course, the boy’s subsequent sickness becomes not only his but the reader's as well. Such is the force of our pity and the sting of Chekhov’s indictment of our privilege.
I bring up the pathetic because it used to be the first word that came to my mind when I encountered Paul McCarthy’s work, work that I’ve hated for so long and taken such pains to avoid out of mere distaste for its lack of civility and charm, that now, of course, it is unavoidable and important. Then too, with the opening of L&M's magisterial space in
I remember my first encounter with McCarthy’s work, his Painter, 1995. A man struggles to paint with large fingers and he is doing it badly. McCarthy staged the expression “Ham Fisted” and the flailing of the earnest painter was documented, down to him hitting his overworked and bloated hands with a butcher knife. Some critics consider this a parody on the idea of the “heroic painter,” the modernist dream of unlocking secrets in private, its hero closed off from the world yet saving the world. And to that end, in that way of thinking, I guess you could consider McCarthy’s proceedings in Painter funny. The flailing of the painter, pushed into awkward madness in his clumsy beliefs, reveals the gross, chaotic impulses which regulate him, impulses that have the benefit of being “true” if no other benefit, being the basis of all selfish human action.
However, I tend to see the validity of art and even the validity of painting in Painter (mostly because I believe in art and painting and the virtue of those that transact its business, and because of this belief, I am unable to see the parody). Therefore I feel a certain amount of weird sympathy for the painter, an amount of pity. His failure, his lack of talent, is pathetic. This feeling in me is productive in that I examine my relationship to the painter and put my beliefs on the line. My structures, if I have them, are tested, but ultimately affirmed. McCarthy stretches them but they don’t break.
Now I doubt McCarthy would agree with me, and the critics above would be quick to point out that it is my categories (my sense of elitist belief that I know what good painting “is”) that animates this quite false sense of sympathy and pity. They would also point out that McCarthy’s point in testing those categories of my false reading, and those feelings, is to show how underneath it all, they are arbitrary. The same would be true if I feel this sympathy and pity at McCarthy’s disgusting dinner parties, where he ends up drinking fluids out of his anus with a tube, sticking hotdogs in all sorts of inventive places, and rolling around in ketchup. The “correct” reading would be that McCarthy shows a certain American lifestyle and happiness to be barely capable of concealing its primitive impulses and that when the bubble bursts, it reveals the chaos. It “shatters boundaries” and that is what the wall labels and curatorial statements end up saying. The only thing missing is a reason to care.
Nobody is denying that civilization is achieved and not preset. We all know that the struggle for order has been a work in progress and that the order is not only a fragile state but something that could unravel at any moment. However, I think these critics are wrong to think that the power of McCarthy’s art lies in his ability to break boundaries. Instead, those feelings of repulsion mixed with sympathy and pity for his characters, that acute sense of the pathetic that is rooted in those same categories, those constructs that put one lifestyle over another and show both failure and success as being an actual noble enterprise on a sliding scale of progress, is the only reason why I can think about and get into McCarthy’s work (when forced to do so – because, with all due respect for the august artist, it’s gross). This thought is the only thing that is productive to me. Simply revealing the absurdity of existence, unraveling things so we can see that nothing really matters, to parody pursuits that people believe in, is an abhorrent lack of ambition in the face of the power of the pathetic and the power of living in the real world, where people care about things and can live, quite sincerely, in their constructs. It is simply a fart joke. It is McCarthy on the cover of ArtReview mooning the world. It’s ridiculous.
All this said, I get to the L&M show.
McCarthy at L&M, perhaps most shockingly, appears pretty tame, and two of the works, Ship and Apple, come across as almost collegial, despite their lumpen masses of rips and tears. Train Mechanical, though graphic with its portraits of W giving it to a group of pigs, comes across, at least to me, as far less disturbing than your average, sincere Disney animatron. But to say that these sculptures are tame, though a criticism, is not a proper criticism of McCarthy. “Tame” and “shocking” are neither powerful qualifiers of a work of art nor are they in anyway descriptive.
I would ask the question: Do these expensively produced objects have, even remotely,the power of one of McCarthy's sad, knifed, soiled dolls that probably cost him a couple of bucks to make? One of the masterful innovations of the work of McCarthy and Mike Kelley is that they retooled the readymade (an ordinary object placed in an art context) to be an object that carries a traumatic history. Duchamp’s cold, inhuman ordinary objects were replaced with teddies and dolls that were cared for, subsequently soiled, and therefore are stained with human interaction. These lend the objects an animistic power, and also a pathetic quality that compels sympathy, memory, and a sense of loss. McCarthy’s dolls hold this power. His big sculptures at L&M do not.
The cute German cherub faces of Ship and Apple, riven through with spikes and clotted with ashen material, are just sculptures. They have a certain amount of visual punch that takes your eyes around them, but as objects that elicit a response, they are dead on arrival. Train Mechanical, on the other hand, begs to be noticed; it takes an extravagant amount of human effort to make its point, and this definitely compels a response. Not the response, however, that you would think.
Train Mechanical is a juvenile statement on Bush and his legacy, an overly simplified metaphor for the position that we are apparently in economically and globally. The sculpture points to the reason why—Bush’s overactive swaggering loins pushing the machinery of corporate
It is easy to make jokes that the left (most of the artworld) will lap up, but the sense of viewer positioning, that true ability of McCarthy to get a person involved if in no other way than getting them to leave the room (my reaction), is missing. There is nothing pathetic or noble or otherwise. That’s a tragic loss.