New York

Win McCarthy, Hard Enough, 2015, Plasticine, resin, ink-jet-printed acetate, lag bolts, Hydrocal, 15 1/2 × 61 × 2".

Win McCarthy, Hard Enough, 2015, Plasticine, resin, ink-jet-printed acetate, lag bolts, Hydrocal, 15 1/2 × 61 × 2".

Win McCarthy

Off Vendome

Win McCarthy, Hard Enough, 2015, Plasticine, resin, ink-jet-printed acetate, lag bolts, Hydrocal, 15 1/2 × 61 × 2".

A signal addition amid the recent vogue for neo-Surrealist sculpture, Win McCarthy’s recent show at Off Vendome came across as a kind of queasy, provisional self-portraiture. The relief Hard Enough (all works 2015) introduced the exhibition’s basic formal and material vocabulary: Roughly five feet across and one foot high, it is a shallow Plasticine dish that has been filled with clear resin, oriented vertically, and then bolted to the wall. Transparent acetate strips on its surface display ink-jet-printed designs—the picture of a face, scrawled lettering, and circles containing the words mouth, nose, and eye in the place of those respective features—alongside which McCarthy has affixed sculptural noses shaped from lumps of Hydrocal. And so the work cycles through a toolbox of representational modes—3-D objects, 2-D pictures, and words—as if each were insufficient to the task at hand. The impression broadcast is a familiar one: that of an artist trying, and deliberately failing, to represent something unrepresentable, some kind of mysterious otherness lurking within.

In other works, these materials (and the ovoid shallow-dish form) accompany substances such as goopy melted glass, reclaimed wood, and distressing buildups of dog hair and dirt. In Absence of Others and Some Cheap Mask, six-foot-wide steel scaffolding supports stretched sheets of polyvinyl. This translucent material carries with it morbid associations, at least to me—tarps laid down before dismemberment, the window of a quarantine tent, suffocation. Here, the plastic sheets serve as both screens and receptacles, having been punctured and then taped back up, or adorned with the image of a face. Oval apertures—sliced cleanly, with a blade that must have been sharp—let our gaze pass through these partitions, penetrating them like a knife.

So what are we to make of McCarthy’s various fixations, hi flirtations with abjection and language, with screens and identity? Lurking amid his work, it seems to me, is the iconography of psychoanalytic critique—something you don’t see that often in 2015. If these days the therapeutic method is usually regarded with a fair bit of scorn, called clumsy, arcane, a clinically discredited quack pseudoscience, it also feels ineradicable. Its basic insights about desire, drives, what it feels like to think and have a body, how symbols work, which gave modernism a visual lingua franca, are stubbornly persistent. They can’t be repressed.

So why not desublimate? Indeed, we might read the exhibition’s artist’s statement as the involuntary “traumatic return” of Lacan’s thought and concepts. McCarthy describes drawing a self-portrait, only to be faced with a moment of anxiety. “When I looked at the drawing as a whole I was startled at how remarkably unlike me the portrait was,” he writes. “I was suddenly in the presence of a stranger.” And then: “More unsettling still was the possibility that this was, in fact, me—me whom I was unable to recognize as myself.” Does this sound like the mirror stage to you? Misrecognition. Alienation. The vagaries of identification. The imaginary other. The whole thing is like a novel published in France, circa 1968. “This was some scary shit,” he continues—a revealing semantic slip.

“The self” is a complicated thing. If McCarthy’s art reminds us of other recent work that seeks to explore formlessness, the abject, or the body as it melds with identity, it also prods us to wonder why we’re seeing such work today. We might be tempted to describe it as a reaction against the psychic effects of new technologies—the alienation and estrangement induced by our social media identities, say, or by posthuman prosthetics. But I’m not so sure. In a way, the concerns of Surrealism are perhaps more basic, part of an always-doomed-to-fail compulsion to seek out the unmappable borders of the self.

Lloyd Wise