Meet the Season 5 Artist: Paul McCarthy

The above video is excerpted from the Season 5 episode Transformation, premiering on Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 10pm (ET) on PBS (check local listings). Whether satirizing society or reinventing icons of literature, art history, and popular culture, the artists in TransformationPaul McCarthy, Cindy Sherman, and Yinka Shonibare MBE — inhabit the characters they create and capture the sensibilities of our age.

Who is Paul McCarthy and what does he have to say about tranformation?

Paul McCarthy was born in 1945 in Salt Lake City; he lives and works in Los Angeles. McCarthy’s video-taped performances and provocative multimedia installations lampoon polite society, ridicule authority, and bombard the viewer with a sensory overload of often sexually-tinged, violent imagery. With irreverent wit, McCarthy often takes aim at cherished American myths and icons—Walt Disney, the Western, and even the Modern Artist—adding a touch of malice to subjects that have been traditionally revered for their innocence or purity. Absent or present, the human figure is a constant element in his work, whether in the form of bodies in action, satirical caricatures, or animistic sculptures; as the residue of a private ritual; or as architectural space left uninhabited for the viewer to occupy. Whether conflating real-world political figures with fantastical characters such as Santa Claus, or treating erotic and abject content with frivolity and charm, McCarthy’s work confuses codes, mixes high and low culture, and provokes an analysis of fundamental beliefs.

On the subject of transformation in art, McCarthy discusses the open-ended nature of process and time with his work (in the forthcoming Season 5 book):

The question is, how does it continue? The work is evolving and changing. It’s in process. Some pieces of mine go on for quite long periods of time, or they get taken apart and included in other pieces, or they’re being worked on. There could be a point where they stop, where they are finished or at least I’m moving on from them. But I view exhibitions sometimes as not the end of something but a beginning. It’s like you see the pieces for the first time, or you see them out of their context, and you can think about them differently. Then you start again. The exhibition is not the end of the piece.

What happens in McCarthy’s segment in Transformation this October?

“My work seems to be about tearing down and opening up conventions,” says Paul McCarthy, who bristles when asked what his responsibility is to the audience for his work. “My responsibility is to the ideas,” he explains, “that’s the difference between making art and making entertainment.” The segment begins with a series of motorized architectural works—including Spinning Room (1970/2008), Bang Bang Room (1992) and Mad House (1999/2008)—installed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. McCarthy’s interest in performance is introduced through the Black and White Tapes (1970-75), a series of minimal videos in which the artist uses his body as a tool, such as painting a white line on the floor with his face or whipping a storefront window with a mixture of paint and motor oil. Later works such as Bossy Burger (1991) and Painter (1995) show the artist performing similarly absurd tasks, only this time adopting a character and on a sound stage. “The persona usually started with a kind of mask or some sort of costume,” he says.

Shot in a community television studio, Family Tyranny (Modeling and Molding) (1987) shows McCarthy and fellow artist Mike Kelley improvising a scene together as father and son. “We’re conditioned into our reality,” says McCarthy, who reflects on how personal family dynamics turn into vicious patterns and how he views his art as a way of “breaking out of a conditioned attitude.” The artist’s own son Damon McCarthy talks about working collaboratively to create the raucous Caribbean Pirates (2005), a non-linear parody of the Disney ride and movie franchise. The segment concludes in McCarthy’s Los Angeles studio where he and his assistants are shown working on a series of drawings and sculptures that include elements from Snow White, Hummel figurines, and a bust of President George W. Bush. “Pieces recycle into other pieces,” he explains, describing the need for “something to act on, something to alter and shift. Like this way of working through ideas.”

Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy. "Carribbean Pirates," 2005. Installation, performance and video at McCarthy Studios, Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Ann-Marie Rounkle, © Paul McCarthy, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Zurich London.

Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy. "Carribbean Pirates," 2005. Installation, performance and video at McCarthy Studios, Los Angeles, CA. Photo by Ann-Marie Rounkle, © Paul McCarthy, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Zurich London.

What else has McCarthy done?

Paul McCarthy studied at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City (1968-69); earned a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute (1969) and an MFA from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles (1972); and was a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (1984-2003). His work has been shown in recent major exhibitions at CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco (2009); the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2008); Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent (2007); Moderna Museet, Stockholm (2006); and Haus der Kunst, Munich (2005), among others.  He has participated in many international events, including the Berlin Biennial (2006); SITE Santa Fe (2004); Whitney Biennial (1995, 1997, 2004); and the Venice Biennale (1993, 1999, 2001).

Where can I see more of McCarthy’s work between now and the Art21 premiere this October?

Paul McCarthy is represented by Hauser & Wirth in Zurich and London. His work can be seen in the exhibition The Puppet Show through September 13 at the Frye Museum of Art in Seattle (along with fellow Art21 artists Louise Bourgeois, Pierre Huyghe, Mike Kelley, William Kentridge, Bruce Nauman, Laurie Simmons, Kiki Smith, and Kara Walker). McCarthy’s exhibition of inflatable sculptures titled Air Pressure is on view at De Uithof in Utretch, The Netherlands, through September 17th.

What’s your take on McCarthy’s inclusion in Season 5?

Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below!