Paul McCarthy is a contemporary artist who was born in 1945 in Salt Lake City, in the US. He is a controversial artist, constantly pushing the boundaries.
Paul McCarthy is used to playing on illusions and cultural myths. He often takes aim at famous American myths, fantastical characters, real-world political figures, icons and attacks their innocence and purity. The human figure is a constant element in his work. It can be whether in the form of bodies in action, satirical caricatures or even as the residue of a private ritual. His work takes form in a wide variety of media: photography, painting, performance, sculpture, video, installation and drawing.
Paul McCarthy has been influenced by the Viennese Actionism. This movement, active in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, replaced canvas with bodies, and paint with primal substances of life, such as blood, sperm and excrements. However, McCarthy doesn’t use such bodily fluids but replaces them with ketchup, mayonnaise and chocolate sauce. Artists such as Yves Klein and Jackson Pollock have also influenced Paul McCarthy.
Two major pieces of work are Painter and Santa Claus.
Firstly, Painter is a video performance realized in 1995 in which Paul McCarthy plays the role of a painter who he is going to ridicule: Willem de Kooning. Willem de Kooning was a Dutch American abstract expressionist artist. He painted in a style known as ‘Action Painting’ in which paint is spontaneously splashed or smeared onto the canvas, rather than being carefully applied. The video describes de Kooning's senility and late paintings. In this video, Paul McCarthy, dressed up as a clown, with a bulbous nose, giant hands and wearing a curly blonde wig, tries to teach his audience about painting. He works in an oversized setting, slashing paint onto a canvas thanks to a giant paintbrush. The painter mumbles and cries “You can’t do it anymore, you can’t do it anymore”. And later: “I can’t do this anymore”. By saying this, he means painting, art-making, he may mean life. At the end, the artist gets up on a table, pulls down his pants and a collector sniffs at his bare ass, so McCarthy’s own. The collector finds it nice. Painter is said to be a hilarious satire of Abstract Expressionists and of the world of art in general.
Secondly, Santa Claus, also known as the “Buttplug Gnome”, is a sculpture of six metres high which depicts Santa Claus himself, brandishing in the right hand a butt plug and dangling the Father Christmas’s traditional bell in the left one. This statue is the ideal figure for McCarthy’s social criticism: Santa Claus is the perfect symbol of sentimentality and convivial good cheer, of commercial success and consumerism. This sculpture, made in 2001, was originally ordered by the city of Rotterdam. Because people saw it as an obscene provocation, insulting their values and standards, it has been moved several times before being finally placed in the square 'Eendrachtsplein". Chocolate replicas of the sculpture are available.
Marie-Jeanne Bleuzet & Justine Olivier