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I got to see some of Paul McCarthy's early work--which I've always been mildly curious about--at the Haus Der Kunst in Munich this week. Unlike US art institutions, which filter art for the delicate sensibilities of small children, Victorian grandmothers, and Newt Gingrich, European museums don't protect viewers from the sight of icky penises and soiled butt cheeks. Like Charles Ray, who we mostly think of now as a conceptual sculptor, McCarthy comes from the late 60s/early 70s performance art-meets-black and white documentary photo tradition, which famously produced Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, et al. The earliest McCarthy works on view were Earth art-style pieces such as "Rolling a Bowling Ball Down a Mountain" and "Flying From Salt Lake City to LA," documented with rigorous photo grids. Later, McCarthy entered the body art canon with the performances "Painting Lines on the Wall Using My Face and One Shoulder" and "Plastering My Head and One Arm into the Wall." (All titles are approximate.)
By the mid 70s, he had snapped and begun producing his signature work, which could be succinctly described as "Writhing Around Half Naked in Meat and Assorted Condiments." The actual title of his breakthrough video is Sailor's Meat/Sailor's Delight, 1974, which Paper Magazine describes thusly:
...McCarthy donned a pair of woman's see-through panties, blue eye shadow and a blonde wig and proceeded to straddle a queen-sized bed smothered in raw hamburger meat and catsup. From there he went on to rub raw flesh across his chest and penis, mimic sexual intercourse with a jar of mayonnaise and a makeshift phallus, and urinate on a piece of sausage before shoving it down his throat. If that weren't enough, he ended the piece by smashing a bottle on the floor and walking barefoot on the shards of glass.I watched most of this vid at the Haus Der Kunst, sitting on a seat in the main gallery with all this kinky sexual imagery right out there in plain view. There were no furtive darkened rooms for creepy behavior as in the US, but headphones did protect the other museumgoers from McCarthy's disturbing grunts and Deliverance-like squeals. Damn, the early 70s were an interestingly depraved time, partly owing to the end of the sexual revolution that conservatives are always complaining about, partly because the median age of the US population was about 22 and cranky oldsters were not allowed to run the show, as they do now. John Waters had the jump on McCarthy by several years for the filming of antisocial, antipodean behavior--check out the "rosary job" in Multiple Maniacs (1970) to see how far courageous filmmakers won't go now. The main difference was Waters hadn't entered the art world yet--McCarthy's work came out of a fairly disciplined, non-theatrical tradition of testing visual boundaries. Lack of pacing and production values were built into this type of video. Not sure what my point is here, except to say that to the extent LA wants to claim McCarthy as some kind of art world response to the film industry, there were far more maverick filmmakers anticipating what he did.
The Haus Der Kunst featured recent video and sculpture by McCarthy, much of it centered around a lunatic inversion of Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" theme park ride. The screaming, pissing, and rolling in Hershey's syrup is a group romp these days, with larger budgets and casts. I like the artist's later work OK, probably more so in a public context, in Europe, than at Luhring Augustine, where the faux-tony exclusiveness of the Chelsea gallery environment tends to suck all life out of art. Stlll, it's fascinating to see how artists got where they got--to experience the original jarring moments that made their reputations, as opposed to the professional, institutionally-supported continuation of those moments.