New York

Paul McCarthy

Luhring Augustine | Chelsea

In “Clean Thoughts,” an exhibition of new sculptures (plus one vintage work, Chair with butt plug, 1978), Paul McCarthy assembled a motley crew of characters borrowed from sugar-pop domains that stretch from Hollywood movies and Saturday morning cartoons to Christmas culture and Jeff Koons’s sculpture. Shit Face and Dick Eye (both 2002), a couple of mutilated pirate busts cast in black and red silicon rubber, stood guard at the gallery entrance. Together with their sky blue mate, Pot Head, and a drab brown Jack P. (both 2002), they are the most recent additions to McCarthy’s expanding troupe of maladroit freaks. The clean-cast faces of these butt-ugly buccaneers arrested viewers with spaghetti junctions of gashes, gouges, and withered wounds where dismembered male genitalia sprouted from empty eye sockets or turds tumbled from a gaping maw. While they were in a soft clay state, McCarthy whacked two of the pirate busts with a sword, adding to their lurid disarray.

The pirates joined a relative newcomer to McCarthy’s fold, Michael Jackson, who appeared in a number of works based on Koons’s 1988 ceramic sculpture, Michael Jackson and Bubbles—in which the Peter Pan of Pop wears a Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band jacket and lounges with his sidekick chimp. Michael Jackson Red, 2002, is a photograph of McCarthy’s mutant 1999 version of Koons’s sculpture, in which McCarthy enlarged the figures’ heads, hands, and feet. Three showstopping floor pieces featuring abstracted pairs of figures seated atop casts of packing crates were consistent with the gestures and poses of Jackson sheltering his “Mini-Me” simian in the photograph. With gigantic blocky masses for heads that look unstable in proportion to their damaged bodies—forever monstrous and mute—they were the perfect doppelgängers for a distressed father-and-son duo. The dice are always loaded for the patriarchal pairs who populate McCarthy’s work and who evince a strained camaraderie in which simmering brutality is sublimated as melodramatic kitsch. In Michael Jackson Fucked Up (fiberglass plug), 2001, wounds are exposed in Bondo seams where a head is glued together. Repaired body parts, stick arms, and other partial dismemberments were collective reiterations of persistent themes in McCarthy’s art concerning never-ending childhood trauma, the levels of violence we sustain in the process of becoming “civilized.”

McCarthy’s labored production processes give substance to these masculine family relations. Initially, the artist formed a larger-than-life Jackson sculpture, endowing it with crudely fashioned Styrofoam shapes for head, hands, and feet; but he abruptly stopped and put the work, unfinished, into storage. He started over from scratch and completed a model in fiberglass. Then he retrieved and cast in brown silicon the rougher, previously abandoned model, Michael Jackson (fucked up, silicon), 2001—the plug of which became another sculpture.

Santa, a perennial player in McCarthy’s family circle who often doubles as the artist’s persona, made his appearance in a cast reminiscent of a small, cheerful Yuletide lawn ornament. With a bell in one hand and a butt plug in the other, grinning Santa multiples led the way to a rear showroom: In Peter, Paul, 2001–2002, we encounter another version of the artist—this time as a fat, naked, damaged plaster mannequin with a black plastic bag slung over its head. A full cast of McCarthy’s body, positioned facing the corner (shame on him), and its mold flank big packing crates that are, of course, way more than packing crates: They are Tony Smith’s Die, 1962, the big box of Minimalism; the Chapman brothers’ Six Feet Under, 1997 (with the remains of the nuclear family after meltdown); a magician’s mystery box, in which he saws a woman in half and she emerges whole. (No such luck here.) They form a dance around the proverbial void that threatens to become something as soon as you lift the lid—and maybe that’s what McCarthy’s showmanship is all about.

Jan Avgikos