Los Angeles

Paul McCarthy

L&M Arts | Los Angeles

In 1968, Paul McCarthy built a hollow, galvanized steel structure shaped like the letter H and laid on its back. He titled it z-Dead H_ (the H standing for human), making additional versions in the years that followed—notably, Dead H Crawl, 1999, inside of which he imagined moving human bodies. In The Couch, a little-known video from 1973, we watch the artist force his body through a sofa feetfirst, only to emerge out the backside in a kind of birthing episode. And for the lifelike sculpture Dreaming, 2005, McCarthy produced a to-scale silicone model of his own pantless self reclining on a lawn chair. While only a fragment of a prolific career, this disjointed lineage offers a key to accessing the artist’s most recent sculptures, three of which were on view at L&M Arts for the inaugural show of its new LA branch, and which similarly take up the problem of self-figuration in both process and form.

Take, for example, Train Mechanical, 2003–10, in which two fleshy, animatronic caricatures of George W. Bush fuck silicone pigs in synchronized motion. The figures are stationed one behind the other on a stage-type plinth rigged with exposed electronics; their heads, outfitted with motion-sensor eyes, are capable of spinning 360 degrees, such that any moving object entering the space is detected and followed. A succinct representation of the abuse of power, the work delivers its political message loud and clear. In fact McCarthy modeled these stout copulating patriarchs on his own physique. In other words, he again physically inserted his body into a sculpture, in this case implicating himself as a subject of its blunt content even while orchestrating robotic doubles to perform in his place.

From his long-held fixation on figures (and figuring the body to various ends), the artist arrives at the figurine, namely the Hummel, those German kitsch ceramics that depict saccharine boys and girls sporting traditional Alpine garb and posed in various scenarios tinged with Aryan romanticism. Unlike his deployments of Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus, McCarthy’s appropriation of Hummels seems less about cultural baggage (it’s already so heavily implied) than about an interest in manipulating their formal complexities. Stationed on the lawn next to the gallery, a pair of massive aluminum sculptures titled Apple Tree Boy Apple Tree Girl, 2009–10—based on Hummels of the same name—loom over Venice Boulevard like monochromatic mutants. Here, each figurine’s plump little head has been duplicated and then doubled in size; this second head—its facial features caricatured in distended curves of cheek, chin, and forehead—is pitched above the first, forming a kind of vertical januskopf.

The doll-like figures in the show’s third sculpture, Ship of Fools, Ship Adrift, 2009–10, appear carcinogenic, like the charred remains of five dejected survivors perched in a skiff suspended in some vast invisible sea. The work is an enormous tableau in which the abstraction, doubling, and dismemberment seen in the first two pieces are epically incorporated into one cast bronze. Like his penetrated pigs, McCarthy’s “fools” seem oblivious to their own being—their eyes and mouths punctured by pipes, and bearing holes, some stuffed with bulbous appendages and other hardware. Are they waiting to be reeled in or cut loose altogether? The work is an allegory, luring its viewers into its uncanny, voidlike space by evoking empathy or aversion, unlike Big Brother Bush, who locates us, latches on, and won’t let go. The fools represent a state of uncertainty—and it’s ultimately our own.

Catherine Taft