I’m not an art aficionado. I know a little bit about a few things. I know I love Vermeer, that Guernica is something special, and that Rothko paintings calm me. If you tried to talk to me about such-and-such movement or the difference between pre-Raphaelite blah blah and post-modern so-and-so you’d be met with a very blank stare. Art world people seem to know that mutli-media madman Paul McCarthy is one of the country’s greatest living artists and has been for a long-ass time, but I didn’t know McCarthy or his art existed until last Valentine’s Day.
Ah, Valentine’s Day. A day full of roses and kisses and happy Hallmark cards. In a way, it was the perfect day to be assaulted by McCarthy’s work. In the midst of the roses and kisses, my Valentine and I walked through McCarthy’s Tokyo Santa, Santa’s Trees installation at MOCA and didn’t really know what hit us until we went and walked back through a second time. It’s vulgar, disgusting, ugly and offensive. And it stuck with me. More than the Basquiat I was so excited to see. More than the Rothko paintings that were so gorgeously awesome. So when I got the chance to sit down and meet the lunatic that created this depraved piece of work – I jumped.
Hit the Jump to see a gallery of Paul McCarthy’s work, plus read his thoughts on the nature of existence, what Miss Piggy and Angelina Jolie have in common, and his fascination with “The Situation”…
“Much to my dismay, McCarthy wasn’t a paint-splattered, bloody hatchet-wielding serial killer…”
Three new sculptures by McCarthy opened the new L&M Gallery in Venice Beach, California this past Saturday, and that morning I hopped on my bike and pedaled over to meet the man himself. I half expected a psycho-killer with a paint-splattered shirt — I was a little afraid. McCarthy was late. Like, almost two hours late. But, as one art world PR girl said, “He’s the artist. He’s allowed to be late.” I guess. I rode my bike around, came back to the gallery, read the paper and stared enviously at all the super amazing shoes on the feet of these art world PR chicks. Why do women in the art world always have such rocking footwear? I contemplated their shoes until I sensed a stirring excitement happening, and a real art critic (someone who would not give you a blank stare if you brought up the importance of the so-and-so movement) jumped up, looked at me and breathlessly whispered, “Paul’s here!!!” Jeez dude, I thought. Chill. But I guess if I were about to interview the Black Keys I would have the same reaction as this dude. To him, Paul McCarthy was something like a king. I dig that kind of enthusiasm.
Much to my dismay, McCarthy wasn’t a paint-splattered serial killer wielding a bloody hatchet. In walked a paunchy Polo-shirt wearing fella who looked kind of like… Santa. Art critic dude and I shook McCarthy’s beefy hand, said our hellos, and followed him over to a picnic table. On the way over McCarthy grabbed a scone off of a gleaming silver platter and giggled. He was very excited about the scone. He’s the artist. He’s allowed to be. We settled in and I decided to start things off light, with some babble about what part of town McCarthy lives in. He talked about his commute over… etc etc. It was all very pleasant. He’s a pretty sweet guy! Art critic dude jumped in and started asking McCarthy if he considered himself part of the Austrian such-and-such movement, and all the while I silently marveled at the scone crumbs that tumbled off of McCarthy’s grey beard and found a home on his blue Polo shirt. I also marveled that this bad-boy, punk rock art world god was wearing a Polo. Where I come from, Polo shirts are a blinking sign telling people: “I am a respectable, preppy, god-fearing, football loving male. Art is a Superbowl commercial.” I loved that McCarthy was wearing this shirt. It was endearing.
“We continued down the ocular fucking path for a bit, and I used this time to strategize about the ways I could gracefully transition into Snooki speak…”
So he and art critic dude talked about modern painters I had never heard of, and McCarthy talked about how in his early days in art school he liked to get on top of his canvases and “beat ‘em with a hammer.” He liked destroying things in a “funny, formal way.” He talked about the “process,” about the “struggle with the object,” and I could tell art critic dude was enthralled but as I listened I was suppressing my burning desire to ask McCarthy if he liked Jersey Shore. Researching his work the night before, I decided that a guy like this, who likes messing with American pop culture (Santa, Disney, George Bush, etc), MUST love Jersey Shore. And to be honest I’m not sure dissecting and discussing an artists’ work with the artist is a swell idea. A little mystery never hurt anybody. Instead of asking McCarthy where this or that idea came from or what he was trying to say in so-and-so “piece,” I wanted his thoughts on Lady Gaga. I waited. Patiently. Like I was on a stake out.
The subject of reputed ocular intercourse…
Then art critic dude asked McCarthy about the “ocular fuck” in his new sculpture Train, Mechanical, and that immediately pulled me out of my Polo-shirt-crumb reverie. This was getting good. McCarthy blurted, “What is that? There’s not an ocular fuck in this piece. But I have done work with ocular fucks before…” Indeed, Train, Electric does not involve any ocular fucking. The two pigs are fucking the other pigs’ EARs. Sheesh.
In the midst of this riveting discussion, a nervous server (most likely a giddy art school student) came over with a shiny silver tray of crystal glasses. “Ginger Lime Italian soda? Or champagne with cherry bitters?” We all politely declined. I gotta admit I was a little disappointed that McCarthy didn’t grab three champagne glasses and down them at once, letting his crazy-eccentric artist flag fly high. He did say, “I’d jump off a balcony for Yves Klein.” That’s something. I wanted to ask how high off a balcony but I bit my tongue. We continued down the ocular fucking path for a bit, and I used this time to strategize about the ways I could gracefully transition into Snooki speak. I realized grace had nothing to do with it. I would just have to blurt it out.
Some of McCarthy’s installation work
The stakeout continued. Art critic dude had had his moment in the sun. It was time. I sensed that McCarthy was winding down his talk of structure and I found my in: “So, I have to ask you: What do you think of Jersey Shore?” Art critic dude let out a little noise that sounded like a scoff. I didn’t mind. McCarthy’s face lit up, his eyes got wide, and he replied, “I’m obsessed with The Situation!” My heart swelled. My eyes almost got teary. I loved this man. Really loved him. We launched into a full on, passionate discussion of Jersey Shore. I mean, I’ve only watched four minutes of the show in my life (it made me physically sick — melodramatic, yet true) but I love talking about the IDEA of Jersey Shore. “I think they’re all assholes,” McCarthy confessed of Snooki and her cohorts. “If I ever meet them, something’s gonna go down.” We all — art critic dude included — agreed that all these reality show people ARE assholes. But they’re fascinating assholes. It was amazing, talking about Snooki’s effect on the culture at large with this man. It was like Christmas, and he was Santa. If you’re curious, Paul (I’ll call him Paul now, yes I will) loves Celebrity Rehab and Dancing with the Stars. “I wanted Pam Anderson to win,” he revealed. We were really bonding. He’s working on a few new things that incorporate reality shows (ta-ha!) and celebrity culture at large. To him, Angelina Jolie (curiously he kept mispronouncing her name, like “Ang-lena”), Miss Piggy and Snooki really are all “the same” in the sense that they all have these personas that sort of float above the rest of us, “in the clouds.” He did let his nihilistic flag fly a bit when he said, “as human beings on earth we float in a void.” I dunno, Paul. That thought makes me feel a little lonesome. Anyhow it was inspiring and amazing getting the chance to talk about Snooki, Yves Klein and the fact that “we live in a culture that constructs reality” with this Santa man.
I left the interview feeling alive and elated. Peering into the mind of an artist, getting a peek at how he sees the universe is pretty amazing. Now, I don’t like all of his art. In fact, I think some of it IS pretentious. I stopped watching a few of his videos on You Tube because they were so gross and unnecessary to me. Like a Harmony Korine movie. Who needs it? And anybody who smears themselves with feces and calls it art can just go fly a kite in my humble opinion. But when I went back later that day for the actual gallery opening, I did accept that champagne with cherry bitters. I wandered into the room where Train, Electric — his non-ocular fucking sculpture of George Bush and the pigs — sat. As with Tokyo Santa, my initial reaction was repulsion and embarrassment. I was standing with a bunch of strangers watching giant ex-presidents move around, making love to farm animals. The sculpture itself is mechanical and continuously moves (Bush’s head even flies back in orgasm at one point, and they are sensitive to movement so the sculpture actually reacts to the viewer — photos don’t do it justice) and I think the easy, quick first impression to this sculpture, and to so much of his art, is to say, “How lame” and walk away to find something more pleasant. I stood and watched the sculpture for a long, long time. Suddenly I felt the Southern belle in me go into hiding, and any embarrassment I felt drifted away. I watched the reactions of people just walking into the room — I recognized the uncomfortable looks on their faces. Some people walked right out. Some people stayed. And the longer I stood there, I forgot about the sex and the politics and the meaning of it all. I just got lost in the graceful movement of the thing. In some way, maybe that’s what McCarthy is trying to do: make us face and confront our own discomfort, our own fear of the ugly and the offensive, and then just let all of that float away… until all we see is movement. Who knows though… let’s leave it a mystery.
Paul McCarthy: Three Sculptures is on view at L&M Arts in Venice through Nov. 6
Tokyo Santa, Santa’s Trees is now part of the permanent collection at MOCA Los Angeles
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Santa McCarthy in his signature Polo…