Win McCarthy, Garden Path Sentence, 2021, mixed media. Installation view.

Win McCarthy, Garden Path Sentence, 2021, mixed media. Installation view.

Win McCarthy

“My name is Joseph Winston McCarthy. Born July 2nd, 1986. American. I’m here in Berlin on a business trip.” So, in relative coherence, begins the handout for Win McCarthy’s exhibition “RULER.” The text then develops, or disintegrates, into a vertical list of potential personal measurements, all unanswered: “Cholesterol,” “Quarterly earning,” “Credit score,” “Occupation,” “Weight,” etc. These, meanwhile, are mingled with unverifiable measures and overtones of nostalgia: “Personal merit,” “The king’s thumb,” “Fatigue,” and “Once again, it’s bedtime for baby.” As an attempt at an objective outline of one person by that person, it’s a premeditated failure, a mirror of the show itself. As usual, McCarthy’s works in this show were primarily assemblage, and—as usual—it was hard to be sure whether all (or any) of the included artefacts have genuine resonance for him or if he was just insidiously staging the illusion that they do. The show opened with multiple images of a silver-haired manservant, seen first in tacked-up photographs of his head and feet, and then in full body, split into four parts, these pictures likewise pinned haphazardly onto the wall next to a yellow steel ruler. The dual signification of “ruler” in terms of both measurement and dominance is obvious, but this domestic’s relation to “Joseph Winston McCarthy” was not and never became so. One might have tentatively linked it to the reference, in the scrambled text mentioned above, to “Mama and Papa,” but to do so was already to feel the ice splintering beneath one’s feet.

The centerpiece of the show, meanwhile—occupying most of the floor space in the main room—was Garden Path Sentence (all works 2021), a crosswise arrangement of more metal rulers, some welded together, interspersed with multiple pairs of formal adult shoes stuffed with paper, shoeboxes containing diverse memorabilia and mutilated photographs with figures missing, elementary-school instruction posters (how to tell the time, cursive writing, and so on), and doll babies, one of which lay facedown in a shoebox. Another, lightly soiled, sat with a zonked expression against another box. The visage of a third, flat on its back, had been defaced with ugly blue inking that looked like the scribbles of an errant kid, but also like the markings of a sloshed plastic surgeon. Overlooking all this, on the far wall as you entered, was Indeterminate Child, an unframed black-and-white image of an ambiguously gendered child enveloped by darkness. Only the lower part of the face, the hands, and an oval of chest were visible, as if the youth had been forcibly plunked atop a photocopier. You might have wanted to consider that scenario while looking at Assembly of Mr. Innocent, a table arrayed with an adult’s suit and tie, and a shirt with another toy baby stuffed into it.

It was tempting to read “RULER” as a cautionary tale about the power of choreographed affect. The exhibition, in its fragmentary theatricality, prowled around the theme of psychic violence in childhood, whether because of parental pressure, powerlessness under structures of control (human rulers, the tedium of scholastic learning), or some otherwise unaddressed bad shit. But it also rooted itself in unknowability, in that by using objects to assert what objects can’t do—stand for a whole person, give them a clear origin story—McCarthy gave with one hand and took away with the other. If there was an autobiographical truth to be disinterred here, maybe it was this: “RULER” was a portrait of someone admitting, lamenting, that much of what lies within him, and what made him, is inaccessible to others—we are inaccessible to each other, really—and maybe also to himself.