As was witnessed by his recent ‘La-La Land’ retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery, since the 1960s Paul McCarthy has continually re-pitched the tone and volume of his singular creative voice to challenge the conventions governing traditional artistic practice. From his conceptually inspired body-art performances of the 70s to the most recent motorized sculptures and ever more lavish video and sculpture installations, McCarthy undertakes a critical examination of Western Pop culture. Highlighting its traumas and celebrating its taboos to expose the institutions that shape us, McCarthy’s work tackles the foundations of the social structures presented to us through the media of popular culture.
Informed by an exploration of the often complex and subconscious relationships between form, medium and process, Red Plug is one of McCarthy’s most important sculptures of the 1990s and embodies the artist’s humorous fascination with the underbelly of popular culture. Taking themes physical abstraction and exaggeration to new, monumental levels, the enlarged feet and head combine with the smooth materiality of the blood-red resin to augment the work’s compelling psychological and physical presence. Much like his early work in which McCarthy had used his own body as a locus for social criticism through acts of self-mutilation, defecation and humiliation, here McCarthy takes the enormous, androgynous body of a children’s toy through which to voice a range of social fears, obsessions and conflicts. Recalling the excessive and gratuitous atmosphere of his video performances in which McCarthy ingests mountains of processed hamburger meat, hot dogs and condiments – the packaged goods synonymous with modern American culture - there is a similar mood here of humorous / grotesque exaggeration.
Red Plug belongs to McCarthy’ series of iconic ‘appropriation’ sculptures. Transforming familiar forms from Popular culture through often violent and humorous acts of manipulation, like Michael Jackson Gold (fig. 1) which took Jeff Koons’ famous ‘Michael Jackson and Bubbles’ sculpture as its basis, or Blockhead (2003) which towered over the London skyline whilst on exhibition at the Tate Modern, Red Plug transforms the unthreatening objects of childhood into the menacing and unexpected. As in his most renowned sculptures from the early 1990s like Spaghetti Man (fig. 2) and Tomato Head (fig. 3), McCarthy here constructs an atmosphere through which to challenge the viewer’s cultural and moral boundaries. As the artist explained, “I operate in a kind of theatre. I use objects to represent things, to represent thoughts and feelings.” (Paul McCarthy in conversation with Kristine Stiles, Ralph Rugoff, (Ed.), Paul McCarthy, London 1998, p.14)
Taking us beyond the comfort zones of familiarity and expectation, McCarthy pursues the constructive devaluation of cultural hierarchies through “the construct of reality as absurdity”. McCarthy here borrows the association and metaphor connected to this familiar, toy-like object and wreaks havoc with our idealized visions of childhood. “Bristling with the dark and mischievous humour of fairy tales, these works seem to have stepped out of another order of reality, an impression reinforced by their professional fabrication. Unmarked by any touch of the hand, their impersonal gloss signifies the immaculate conception of the virtual, yet they are disconcertingly concrete. Towering over our heads, they shock us back to the confusions of childhood and a crisis often associated with effigies: it seems impossible to see them as mere lifeless objects.” (Ralph Rugoff, (Ed.), Paul McCarthy, London 1998, p. 78)
Red Plug’s disproportionately enormous, eyeless head looms over the viewer and physically transports us to the role of infant. Calculatingly created to nurture an uncomfortable proximity, it is us the viewer who begin to feel examined and not the object we perceive. Questioning preconceived notions of gender and sexuality, Red Plug’s androgynous form stirs up the contradictory realities of contemporary society. McCarthy’s broad artistic ambitions here unite the real world of Pop culture with the closed confines of the art world and its movements. As a conveyor of often unwelcome truths and notorious breaker of taboos, McCarthy’s influence upon the outwardly amoral stance and blasphemous elements of shows like ‘Sensation’ and ‘Apocalypse’ cannot be overstressed. In today’s cultural panorama, McCarthy is unquestionably one of the most influential living artists and it is impossible to examine the work of artists like Jake and Dinos Chapman without the acknowledgement of McCarthy’s influence and example. Mixing cliché and convention to break down our social stereotypes and expectations, McCarthy’s contaminated aesthetic is addressed to a contaminated audience through the language of infancy. In his inherently humorous, topsy-turvy world of images drawn from both the media generated ideals of behavior and the murky depths of his own psyche, there is no reasoned hierarchy of taste to guide us safely between the kitsch and the authentic. As such, McCarthy’s work forces us to question pre-conceived notions of taste and control in a media driven world of collective experience.
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