Andrew Lambirth

From horror to the sublime

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.

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