Los Angeles

Paul McCarthy

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

Every civilization gets the shamans it deserves. What we have is a media bureaucracy of fashion plates managing our dreams and fears, their Dolby chorus of double-talk snake-charming the popular imagination beyond complacency into a deep, deathlike slumber. Paul McCarthy’s hour-long hostile takeover of television sitcomdom, Bossy Burger, 1991, interrupts our regularly scheduled programming like a nightmare. McCarthy has appeared on TV before. (He chose to exhibit a few of his more unseemly performance works, such as Sailor’s Meat, 1975, in which he dressed in women’s lingerie and fucked raw meat in a skid row hotel room, on videotape.) But now he’s taken his act to prime time: for this show McCarthy assembled an entire TV studio set from the canceled series The Hogan Family and, using a four-camera setup, taped a haunting counter-melody to the Great American televisual Lullaby. Displayed alongside the scenery, the videotape replayed on two monitors for the duration of the show.

The mere presence of McCarthy pacing the environs of a family sitcom is transgressive enough. His character—adult in size yet huffing around agitatedly as if lost in childlike preoccupation—rattles the works like a loose screw inside television’s narrative machinery. No plot resolution here, no inevitable moral uplift at the show’s end—McCarthy seems far less interested in storytelling than in hosting a libidinal feeding frenzy. What propels Bossy Burger is not linear push but sheer psychic combustion. Even his costume—a chef’s hat and apron, red oversized clown shoes, and an Alfred E. Newman mask—suggests a quilted cultural memory, recognizable in parts yet disorienting on the whole. Wrapped in this Bozo-the-Surgeon uniform, his face hidden behind a frozen “What, me worry?” grin, McCarthy gives material form to the split between his private and public selves. He both stages himself and stays out of sight, and his invisibility grants him the okay to act out subbasement impulses to do basically anything. Standing before the camera as if inhabiting a life-sized puppet, his psychic energies at once overheated and bottled up, McCarthy wanders, makes noises, and fidgets with props. It’s the closest TV will ever come to The Hannibal Lecter Show.

Like much of McCarthy’s previous work, Bossy Burger is characterized not just by anxiety (the most nerve-racking scene is perhaps the one in which the artist, laughing at having executed a drawing of a missilelike penis, suddenly barks at the cameraman, “What’s that? What’s that?”) but also by a tragicomic pathos. McCarthy knows how to get seriously stupid. Despite all its physical mess and psychotic buzz, the exhibit seems straightforward in approach—not only is there the how-to undertone of Bossy Burger’s baking-show premise, but also, with the TV stage set itself put on display, a behind-the-scenes glimpse provided of the video’s creation. You could almost label this work Modernist. Except, of course, that McCarthy uncovers not the truth in his materials but their potential for emotional investment and distortion. McCarthy displaces his desires onto everything within reach, transforming props into psychic chew toys. When he overturns “family-size” containers of ketchup and mayonnaise, the substances that come belching out seem flatfootedly to reference not only body fluids but their lofty communion counterparts—wine and wafers. McCarthy insists on filtering his Dionysian rampage through Ronald McDonald culture; in a moment of heightened excitement, he lovingly coats an armchair with ketchup while chanting, “I love my work, I love my work.”

On display in the gallery’s back rooms are by-products not only from Bossy Burger but from earlier performances—mostly props, models, and some remarkably delicate drawings unearthed intact from the hinter-regions of McCarthy’s id. Like the performances themselves, these works appear as fugitive mementos of experiences, which our culture has deemed inadmissible and suppressed. Paired with the tape of President Bush blowing chunks during his recent state dinner in Japan, Bossy Burger would cap off the taboo video double bill of the year.

Lane Relyea