Paul McCarthy (b. 1945, Salt Lake City) has combined performance, video and sculpture throughout his career, intertwining each medium to create a work we might say is extreme and susceptible to some. McCarthy uses popular culture icons as his references – Walt Disney, Santa Claus, American Western, political authority figures. He is one of the most recognized contemporary artists, marking his presence in art fairs, producing artworks of a massive scale such as, for instance, the installation at Park Avenue Armory, New York, in 2013.
If on the one hand Paul McCarthy criticizes the American society of consumption (which is uncritical, consuming television, images, objects and food in an excessive manner), on the other, the artist uses video and performance to sexualize popular icons in such an anti-mainstream manner that, with the intent of shocking, McCarthy takes these images to the limits of sexuality.
At Xavier Hufkens, the exhibition ‘White Snow & Coach Stage Stage Coach, Spinoffs’ is controversial. Two themes of Paul McCarthy’s work – Snow White and the American Western – are displayed in two gallery spaces, combining sculptures (pieces that were developed along the years, variations, which the artist names ‘spin-offs’), a film, and drawings.
What at first glance seems to be eye candy (the Snow White colors, polished wood, exceptionally technically executed sculptures, innocent smiling figures) ends up revealing political, moral, and gender issues that are systematically addressed by the artist.
In the first gallery space we are faced with three giant stylized heads titled ‘White Snow or ‘WS’. These sculptures, which are painted with the three Snow White character colors (red, yellow, and blue), are laying on the gallery floor resembling big head volumes without eyes, removed from a body, about to roll over themselves. Their faces, heads, and necks are pierced by tubes and merging objects. Paul McCarthy has gotten us used to his fascination for exposing the interior of the body. ‘White Snow and Prince on Horseback’ is a bronze sculpture with black patina. White Snow is taken by the prince on a horse and has her mouth open in awe. In every sculpture, elements of the body are repeated – heads (always without eyes) and body parts are duplicated, triplicated, or conglomerated, creating a mixture of bodies (Snow Whites, Princes, Horses, Dopeys) that intersect with no definition of beginning or end, displaying body orifices (mouth or anus).
In the last room we find ‘The Grove’, a big floral arrangement (with artificial plants and flowers) that deceives the viewer into thinking that the work is simply that (a flower arrangement). When we actually peek into its interior through the branches, what we surprisingly see are two naked small figures under a contrasting (almost cinematic) light – a man (Walt Paul) drags a woman (White Snow). It is almost as if we get into the films of Paul McCarthy and indeed the small masculine figure is a persona created by the artist. Walt Paul – a combination of the names Paul McCarthy and Walt Disney.
There is a clear protagonist (White Snow) without a happy ending, unmasking the fairytale of female characters in Walt Disney movies and in the American culture.
In ‘Stagecoach’ (in the second gallery space) we find a very complete exhibition that exemplifies the typical intertwining of sculpture, video/performance, and drawing (storyboard) in McCarthy’s work. Here the heroes are the masculine figures of the American Western. As we enter, we see two sculptures – one is a deformed and eyeless John Wayne, with damaged nose and mouth and a fallen ear, and the other is a large-scale head of Charles Bronson, his eyes perforated by steel tubes, on top of a structure from which horse parts seem to fall. The masculinity, charm, and virility of these Hollywood stars are here dismantled and the artificiality of the heroes that never die is disintegrated in the sculpture itself.
Two themes inspired in movies from the 30’s and in a culture that praises heroes and winners against losers. Paul McCarthy’s work lives between attractive images, which he translates into sculpture, and repulsive images (in film), which cause disgust and are at times shocking. It is hard to identify the position of the artist when he is himself persona and character in his own movies and (violently) lays bare what we still don’t want to see.
Text by Catarina Vaz