Los Angeles

Paul McCarthy

By 1974 Paul McCarthy had already made more than two dozen performances and videotapes and parodied AbEx by painting with his penis. Around that time, John Waters was preparing to shoot Female Trouble (1975), perhaps his greatest film. When Dawn Davenport—played by Divine, in one of his most enthralling performances—wakes on Christmas morning to find that her parents had decided not to indulge her desire for cha-cha heels, she throws a tantrum (which ends with her mother pinned beneath the Christmas tree) and bangs out the door in a flimsy green negligee to begin a life of crime and extreme beauty. A scene of outrageous humor, it is also an acute commentary on the explosive give-and-take of desire and the quasi-pornographic transferences crucial to any act of giving, withholding, or receiving (think of Andy Warhol bestowing “cum” paintings on baffled loved ones as holiday favors).

Dusty, decorated Tannenbaums (“bluish, associating with their shadows,” to hijack the words of Elizabeth Bishop), “presents” smeared with fecal chocolate, and documentary photographs, all from a performance in Tokyo in late 1996—the crusty artifacts in McCarthy’s “Tokyo Santa o Santa’s Trees” crammed the gallery, barely leaving room for a path through the fake, dilapidated woods. Among the dirty, gold paper–wrapped boxes and stained tree-stand covers shoved under the trees, one could easily imagine a prostrate Mrs. Davenport. On a workshop table, defiled with grease paint and chocolate syrup, a sausage-y prop probe awaited its moment. Cast aside in a corner, oversize flat boxes held scatalogical paintings with donutlike impressions and circlings (Hermann Nitsch rescues tired David Reed). Ringing the gallery in a deranged frieze, dazzling, wet-looking Technicolor photographs show Santa using an inflatable hemorrhoid cushion to make these paintings. In one photo, St. Nick fondles a toy monkey; the little chocolate-dipped critter was among the leftovers bacchanal. As much as the miraculous crappiness of the found artificial trees inspired his practice, McCarthy’s challenge is how to respond to their overwhelming actuality without detracting from it.

McCarthy’s work has always engaged and encouraged an investigation of the repressed and its return. His animatronic monstrosities (boy fucking goat, men humping trees, trouserless cowboys) depend on their relation to Disney, what Disney represses and cleanses in its valedictory Disneyfications: Abraham Lincoln rising (barely) to deliver an address in the Hall of Presidents; the good-time Country Bear Jamboree; costumed Mickeys, Goofys, and Donalds wandering, sweaty, the Happiest Place on Earth. With “Tokyo Santa • Santa’s Trees,” one of the most successful presentations of a performance’s aftermath (an accumulation of props transformed into something more—sculpture—and retaining by projection or infestation an auratic vitality as well as a vicious black-hole absence), McCarthy returns to his Bossy Burger greatness with a hands-on, Actionist economy and performative energy. To see Santa’s Remains, 1996, a slide of the abused Santa suit and mask from the Tokyo performance, depleted and rank as a week-old condom, is to find the sublime embedded in the abject like a pregnant tick. By “abject” I mean only the dreams of anyone at all confronted by and confronting the common real.

Bruce Hainley