Paul McCarthy, Couple, 1966, 16mm film; 15:07 minutes, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Hauser & Wirth.
[Image via Art Tattler ]
McCarthy also started working in an era of growing discomfort with consumerism. While many of Pop art’s founders responded to the facts of consumer life positively — it was a thrill for Andy Warhol to think that the president of the United States couldn’t drink a better Coca-Cola or a eat a better Big Mac than he could — other artists wondered if the post-war economic boom in the US and Western Europe could deliver the spiritual fulfillment it promised would follow its material richness. Richard Hamilton responded with irony. Ed Ruscha responded with wonder. Paul McCarthy learned to respond with works characterized by a sense of anchorlessness.
Paul McCarthy, Grand Pop 1977, 1977. 20 silver gelatin photographs: each 35.4 x 45.3 cm.
And of course, that anchorlessness could be channeled into something rebellious and politically radical. In addition to the group activism and protest movements of the ’70s and ’80s, whose influence solidified in the art world with the Fluxus group, the Art Workers Coalition, and the Guerrilla Girls, one of the chief influences on McCarthy’s work were the Viennese Actionists, whose experiments in performance tested those basic, quotidian social conventions, as well as the limits of normal palatability.
McCarthy’s take has been messy, provocative, and hostile. For Black and White Tapes (1972), he dragged his naked body across the floor. For Painting, Wall Whip (1974), he smeared his face with food, raw meat, and bodily excretions. For Class Fool (1976), he assaulted himself with ketchup, induced vomiting, and placed a Barbie doll’s head where most people don’t put Barbie dolls’ heads.
The most prominent works from McCarthy’s oeuvre highlight, and the most noticeable features of WS are, the way McCarthy’s sense of rebellion takes sexual form. This, alone, might be all you need to know to appreciate his kind of art, in addition to the understanding that it’s about him. In other words, it’s his sexualization and performance timbre that you’re supposed to appreciate.
The point of showing us Snow White surrounded by a horde of randy-looking dwarves is not merely to eroticize a Disney cartoon. The point is to provoke us into rethinking the blandly shrill sugariness of a German folktale as it had been told by someone as prude, racist, and ruthlessly commercial as Walt Disney.