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From horror to the sublime

26 November 2005

12:00 AM

26 November 2005

12:00 AM

It was towards 11 o’clock on the 11th that I approached Paul McCarthy’s exhibition. The Two Minutes’ Silence caught up with me on Monument station and was properly observed apart from the distant wailing of a busker in one of the tunnels and the giggling chatter of a couple of youths. But as I walked into the welcoming and well-lit ground-floor space of the Whitechapel Gallery, I wondered what I had let myself in for. In the centre of the room was a group of small sculptures on plinths, mostly in chocolate or faecal brown. Around the walls was a series of large drawings, some with collage elements. The subjects seemed to be exclusively sex and violence, rendered with a mocking savagery which accorded ill with the children’s storybook approach. For these were, in the main, pirates on the loose, the imagery apparently inspired by Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean.

The drawings have a rawness and energy to them, an inventiveness lacking in the smooth surfaces of the sexually obsessed sculptures. McCarthy (born 1945 in Salt Lake City) studied painting in the 1960s before concentrating on film and performance. His sculptures have developed out of the props and prosthetics he uses for his performances, and as such remain unconvincing, since the reason for their making was a subsidiary and subservient one, not a formal plastic necessity. They remain, for the most part, resolutely schoolboy jokey. A penis hat makes several appearances. In another pirate bust, a penis protrudes from an eye socket. There are broken gunboats or frigates on seas of sludge. One tableau depicts shipwrecked pirates on a tiny desert island incontinently having a go at the pigs; no doubt ‘in a beasty snorty howly sort of a way’, to quote A Clockwork Orange. At a distance (just slightly too far to maintain the relationship in a dense installation) is a vile pink latex pig, a not exactly lifelike — despite its wriggling tail — but lifesize toy, lying on a bed of machinery which makes it function. It is asleep, occasionally writhing in the agony of nightmare before subsiding again to twitchy slumber. The pig is supposed to be dreaming of Pig Island, the venue for the shipwrecked pirates, and presumably re-lives its brutal treatment at their hands.

The work could be seen as heavy-handed satire, an inept excoriation of human folly, but it lacks the moral commitment. There’s a gaudy air of suppressed excitement and celebration hanging over the gallery. In an auditorium at the back, five videos of varying lengths (from 14 to 44 minutes) of McCarthy’s earlier performances are best avoided. I caught a glimpse of someone in a blonde wig doing unspeakable things to what looked like a severed penis. (Do you detect a certain continuity of interest here?) Upstairs there are 32 black-and-white photos of a journey from Salt Lake to LA, and a large MDF floor structure in the shape of an H. In the main room are some partially dismembered plaster figures, another H (this time in metal), and a full-size reclining wax model — shades of Ron Mueck — of the artist. He is half-undressed (guess which half) and cushioned on a sun lounger. Perhaps he dreams of the pig below.

Around the walls are various colour and black-and-white still photos of bizarre moments of McCarthy performances. Possibly these are highlights, but it’s difficult to tell. There’s a table of caricature heads and a table of hands, mostly with broken or severed fingers. The adolescent obsession with bodily functions is everywhere apparent (ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard standing in for bodily fluids), presented with a similarly adolescent vigour. What the work lacks is any intellectual or moral rigour, and, as such, it quickly becomes tiresome. But McCarthy is considered by the powers that be such a significant and influential contemporary artist that the exhibition does not end here. At an inconvenient distance from the Whitechapel, some 15 minutes walk up Brick Lane, is an extensive and elaborate warehouse installation. The cacophony as you’re admitted to this building, the farting and cockcrows, is like a Punch ’n’ Judy show gone mad, or like souls wailing in torment.

More ships, more buckets of blood, and this time inescapable projections of muddled and vicious ‘performances’. It’s quite possible that the artist enjoyed himself (it takes all sorts), but many viewers would regard the whole farrago as a pointless assault on already overburdened senses. This work is apparently about ‘how art can address the increasing dominance of the entertainment industry’. McCarthy evidently believes that nothing succeeds like excess, yet his grotesqueries do not produce laughter nor do they succeed in subverting Hollywood. Viewing his work is not a cathartic or purgative experience except perhaps in the literal sense of vomit-inducing. Indeed his efforts seem more like an extreme and immensely self-indulgent homage to the horror-film brigade than anything else.

In fact, it’s difficult not to detect the presence of evil in the filth, chaos and gratuitous nastiness of this experience. It could only be construed as ‘entertainment’ (never as enlightenment) by those with terminally jaded palates. In A Clockwork Orange, altogether a more imaginative exploration of good and evil, Alex the anti-hero is given the chance of redemption in the last chapter (though not in Kubrick’s film). McCarthy’s infantilism doesn’t rise to such sophisticated heights, nor encompass the possibility of rescue. As David Jones wrote in the Preface to In Parenthesis, his masterpiece about the Great War, ‘We search how we may see formal goodness in a life singularly inimical, hateful to us.’ I don’t find a trace of that search for goodness in the work of Paul McCarthy.

A visit to the 18th-century Bond Street premises of the flamboyant Daniel Katz, dealer in European sculpture, is far more rewarding and genuinely uplifting. For a month his elegant townhouse gallery will host a selection of bronzes on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which is currently closed for renovation. To accompany the show Katz has produced a sumptuous catalogue (price £30) which is a model of scholarship (the sort of publication a cash-strapped museum would have difficulty in affording) and which also contains an essay on neutron radiography and tomography, a new method of examining the physical make-up of these bronze sculptures. Among the treasures on show are the magnificent masked figure of ‘The Sun’ by Johan Gregor van der Schardt, dating from 1570–81, a couple of small oil lamps in the form of grotesque animals (looking a little like the hybrid creatures in Francis Bacon’s ‘Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’), and a tiny Giambologna self-portrait bust. Together with various svelte mythical figures and heavily muscled actual ones, they form a group of virtuoso three-dimensional images which pay as much tribute to the skills of the master-craftsmen who actually made them as to the artists who envisaged and modelled them. Here are the aspirations of mankind, our hopes and fears and desires, rendered for a moment absolute by their transformation into high art; and the effect is incomparably life-enhancing.

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