New York

Paul McCarthy

Maccarone | 630 Greenwich Street

Paul McCarthy’s work questions success in a culture of inauthenticity, of signature replaced by logo, of simulacrum over original. His recent project, Santa’s Chocolate Factory, 2007, perfectly exemplifies these vexed postmodern tropes. Emerging in the 1960s amidst the work of a grand generation of transgressives that includes Mike Kelley, Charles Ray, and Bruce Nauman, McCarthy’s anal-oriented performances and sculptures, with their manic embrace of bestiality and scat, their references (mayonnaise for sperm, ketchup for blood, chocolate for shit) to blood mysteries, and their unrepentant focus on the rectal, quickly became the incarnations of a new, socially acceptable painterliness harking back to Abstract Expressionism.

In effecting this shift in values, McCarthy achieved the longed-for transgression of all art that begins in the rediscovered infantile and not in the agreements of received opinion. His immoderate actions— emptying ketchup bottles into his briefs, smearing himself with mayonnaise, jamming his head through walls—were fortuitously recorded on tape or film. Through these performances he achieved notoriety and a problematic contemporary-master status, certainly on the West Coast, where the history of performance art is accorded a rank virtually equal to that of painting.

But McCarthy’s success is a problem, since it marks the division between the person and the persona, the former answering the demands of an original art, the latter, those of the marketplace—the avid appetite of collectors for a talismanic chunk of the artist’s primal authenticity. When persona takes precedence, the talisman comes to dominate that market. To the degree that McCarthy’s work no longer looks like shit but like real chocolate, persona has replaced the person. Instead of seeming like a rather specialized “men seeking men” Craigslist posting, McCarthy’s sweet Santa is a Christmas morning stocking stuffer. Scatology into eschatology. X-rated into X-mas.

Andy Warhol’s “business art” codified this contemporary conundrum, one manifest in works by Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, and Charles Ray. It is measurable in the present-day priority of photography (which valorizes the infinitely reproducible) over painting (which treasures the unique). The chocolate figurine is McCarthy’s version of a photograph, a print, a multiple—a limited-edition Christmas gift produced in a gallery temporarily transformed into a factory, cheerily stocked with the high-end confections of Guittard Chocolate Company. Willy Wonka as willy wanker.

McCarthy, of course, is here embodied by the chocolate Santa itself, identifiable by the artist’s signature beard, holding in its right arm what might be described as McCarthy’s personal attribute, his iconic motif—a monumental butt plug, now a farcical (from the Latin farcire, to stuff) reference to the once taboo coprophilic spectacle of McCarthy’s earlier performances, magically changing the highcolonic to the high caloric. To be sure, the butt plug in its generalized form resembles a stylized Christmas tree in the manner of a sweet Robert Therrien pictogram rather than the rectally intrusive elements that once came to hand during these performances. The scale relationships between Santa and butt plug, even the jumbo, family-size version, are such that Santa becomes a madly adorable garden troll, a Christmas gnome, a Scandinavian Yule Nisse.

I suppose I wished McCarthy success in this cunning enterprise, however much it skates on the thin ice of art as commerce. The artist hoped for a thousand figures to be produced daily. But are we not both victims and protectors of our cultural biases, among them: If it’s business it can’t be art, or funny, or cute? Clearly, on examination, such views won’t wash, though they continue to color our beliefs. However much Chocolate Santa may be an amusing seasonal tchotchke, nagging doubt relegates this candy statuette to the distant margin of what is potent within McCarthy’s own furiously transformative production, to the realm of Who Cares? This qualification—like the cigarette-box warning against the toxicity of nicotine—probably holds true of all art produced in the name of persona, not person.

Robert Pincus-Witten