Paul McCarthy

Read our interview with the LA-based artist, whose new body of work – 'spin-offs' – continues a process of mirroring the products of the entertainment industry while also reflecting his own production process and his search for the perfect, uncontrived and unconstrained gesture

By Mark Rappolt

Chop Chop, Chopper, Amputation, 2013, clay, wood, mixed materials, 351 × 552 × 229 cm. Photo: Walla Walla Foundry. © the artist Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth White Snow, Party, 2014, bronze, 275 × 314 × 220 cm. © the artist Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Chop Chop, Chopper, Amputation, 2013, clay, wood, mixed materials, 351 × 552 × 229 cm. Photo: Walla Walla Foundry. © the artist Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth White Snow, Party (detail), 2014, bronze, 275 × 314 × 220 cm. © the artist Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

It’s been four years since ArtReview last caught up with LA-based artist Paul McCarthy, when he was in the midst of his epic Pig Island project (published as a supplement to the January 2011 edition). One of the most influential artists of his generation, McCarthy often deals with the power of the entertainment industry, consumerism, mass media and repression in American culture, his work spanning performance, installation, film, sculpture and painting. This time, at the opening of Spin Offs: White Snow WS. Caribbean Pirates CP (its title a reference to the entertainment industry practice of ‘spinning off’ new products from popular franchises), a selection of new sculptures at Hauser & Wirth Zürich, he discusses the latest in a series of exhibitions drawn from ongoing, multiformat projects that were initially inspired by two Disney franchises, both personally overseen by Walt Disney: the 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, dating from the 1960s). Later this month he will present Rebel Dabble Babble Berlin, a collaboration with his son Damon based on Nicholas Ray’s classic Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the stories surrounding its production, onstage at Berlin’s Volksbühne, the first time the work, originally made in 2012, has been presented in a theatre setting.

ARTREVIEW: LA seems to have changed quite a lot in the last 10 to 15 years.

PAUL MCCARTHY I think areas are quite different. I mean, certain areas have been migrating away; they’ve been migrating for 15, 20 years. Hollywood is more ludicrous than it used to be. I’m not sure what shit goes down, but it’s more comical. It used to have a kinda odd dark side to it. I never go there any more. I used to have an interest, but I don’t now.

AR But Hollywood plays a big role in the work on show here…

PM: Away from its location, Hollywood is an abstraction. These pieces maybe have more to do with the direct imagery of Disney and, at the same time, through Disney, entertainment, Hollywood, that sort of spectacle.

AR It seems to be a darker sort of spectacle or fairytale?

PM: Both show here. Obviously Caribbean Pirates and White Snow relate to Pirates of the Caribbean and Snow White. Caribbean Pirates [2001–] came first. My son [Damon] was a filmmaker, and we’d done pieces together before using sets and props. I suggested that we remake the ride as a video, knowing that we were going to use that as a structure, but break from that. Who knows where it was going to go? That piece went on for a number of years, and after that I was interested in making a Western. We had all these ideas about a Western and then up came Snow White. I’d made pieces about Heidi and Pinocchio. I’d made a Heidi [1992] with Mike Kelley. Mike wasn’t connected directly to the subject of Heidi; I had already started that. He and I talked about doing a collaboration and we were part of an exhibition in Vienna. Mike had an interest in Adolf Loos and modernist architecture, and so Heidi became a merger of, in a way, Adolf Loos and Heidi: city, urban, country, Minimalism in architecture, ornamentation, chalet, Grandfather, Peter; all that. I’d never thought about Snow White for some reason.

AR It just came?

PM: Snow White seemed like, ‘Whoa, that one’s a loaded one. That one’s pretty incredible.’ And it had a lotta odd ties. Like with Snow White being a brunette and my mother being a brunette and Karen [McCarthy’s wife] being a brunette and women in my life being brunettes: there was an oddness there.

AR Is that biographical connection important to you in your works? You’ve got the casts of yourself in Chop Chop (2013).

PM: Well, it slips in. A lot of things just drive the subject. It can be a chance acquaintance with somebody, it can be all sudden, especially in a piece like this, when there’s so much being made through improvisation. You just go, ‘Whoa. That’s now part of it. I don’t think I can destroy that.’ In Chop Chop I hadn’t planned on my body being on it, but I was interested in a life cast, and a clay representation, which was so comical, so brutalised, ending up there. I had these life casts: this thing of cutting up my own body and then putting it up there – when the head went up on the chair – it’s a super-brutal image, and it’s your own image.

Paul McCarthy White Snow, Party, from September 2015 Feature
White Snow, Party, 2014, bronze, 275 × 314 × 220 cm. © the artist Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

AR How does it feel when you look at it?

PM: Well, I was describing that piece as a kind of death boat: it exists within certain notions of life and death, Tibetan, Egyptian… it isn’t so much that I look at it and say, ‘Oh, that’s what happens to me. Jesus, that’s going to be terrible.’ It is a thing that makes me think about death. It makes me think about finality, and it’s a statement about after death; at least it’s more of a register about a key theme of thinking about my own immortality/mortality.

AR Is that often how the works come together during construction? That there’s a kind of dialogue between you and the material?

PM: Yes, a thing unravels. Sometimes I think through the process and I arrive at understanding. At other times you arrive at a thing that illustrates, represents, indicates or stands for something that you didn’t intend, yet seems quite significant to you, because you keep it and you keep pushing at it.

AR And is that what you enjoy the most? The recognition of something you didn’t intend?

PM: I don’t know whether it’s the most, but it certainly can be. I’ve said in other interviews that the pieces from the 1970s, the performances, had a lot to do with what I couldn’t predict and what I couldn’t see coming. I don’t know whether that would be the key now. What seems to be critical now has more to do with, ‘Can I arrive at something that’s a physical substance? Can I affect the physical? How often does that happen? Can I direct it?’ One of the things that happens is setting up situations that I think will get to something that produces a meaningful physicalness in myself, a sensation.

AR And is it yourself rather than an audience that you have in mind when you’re making the work?

PM: In some ways we’re the same.

AR That’s quite optimistic.

PM: That I’m the same as the viewer? It’s the only way I can see to do it.

AR Going round the show, there’s almost a series of stages between something that looks like it came from the studio directly during the process, to highly finished works, to works that are in between the two. Is that something you looked to set up, exposing the method of production to some degree?

PM: It’s not that I set out to do that. The show has three different types of work in it, and to a degree they’re all related. I work that way. I know that when I got through, it was so obvious: it looks like three people made these things.

AR I find the balance between your displays of intention and chaos really interesting – for example, when you see the exposed armatures in a sculpture like Chop Chop, it indicates an intention – and yet the whole looks incredibly chaotic. Are you interested in this tension?

PM: In all of these pieces there’s an element I can’t predict. Even in the bronzes [White Snow Singularity, 2015; White Snow, Party, 2014; White Snow, Bambi, 2014; and White Snow, Asleep, 2013–14]. The thing that fascinates me about working with the computer to create these is that I’m looking at a screen, and on that screen, in a sense, I can only see one dimension. So I stick that object inside the other object. Then I have to turn it and rotate it to see how it has affected the other side, and I can only somewhat predict that. There’s a whole thing of turning it and then going, ‘Whoa. What the? The leg just went through the eye. Didn’t see that coming.’ That sense of the unpredictable – I’m interested in that.

In a lot of ways these things create themselves. Like the big Singularity out there. I had made that as a form and had been working on it for a day and then all of a sudden I just thought, ‘Wow. What happens if I take that thing, double it and pull it up? What happens? Well, before we go, let’s do that.’ I was being careful, conservative, and then at one point, OK, let’s move, pull it up. Then it was like, ‘Oh my God, look what happened,’ which interests me: what drives that piece and why is it a singularity? I’ve been thinking about the subject of singularity and its relationship to cosmology or its relationship to Buddhism. I’ve been looking at it and I was thinking of it as a form. What is the form? What is a singularity within astrophysics? Within Buddhism? What is duality? I was looking at it like a Rubik’s Cube. Each day I would go, ‘Oh well, if you think of it this way it’s this, and…’

Paul McCarthy Chop Chop, Chopper, Amputation, from September 2015 Feature
Chop Chop, Chopper, Amputation, 2013, clay, wood, mixed materials, 351 × 552 × 229 cm. Photo: Walla Walla Foundry. © the artist Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

AR Were you attracted to trying to look at the form of something that in many ways has no form?

PM: Well, once you’re in the singularity, that’s where you’re at. Once you’re into certain lines of thinking about the sense of Buddhism or something, there’s the end of duality, which is the end of the other, which is the end of form. And there you are: you’re at consciousness, or a point in consciousness that has no other. And the thing of Singularity: it’s essentially the coming together of multiple facets; multiple sculptures are brought together and the turning of the sculpture onto its end, or the base coming up, was also something within consciousness and singularity. Is there an orientation? Well, there can’t be an orientation either.

So the piece becomes about orientation, the mixing of three, four pieces into one, but they’re not without a sense of themselves, it’s not a complete singularity. Within that form of singularity there’s a recognition of oneself separate from the other which is all one. And then there was the person inside there, and she’s in a way cuddled within the arms of the fantasy of Snow White. She’s in that fantasy. There’s something about being held within the form, like the actual person, the life cast, is held within the fantasy of the form. It’s a piece that draws you in. You go around the back, you come to the front…

The other one [White Snow, Party] you see from the front, you go to the side, you’re pushed from the back, you’re drawn in. And what are you drawn into? Into the person who is sitting up. She’s not lying down [like the other figures]. She’s not looking at you, but there’s a sense that you’re becoming part of the piece in the same way that you view an object or a piece of art, and in some ways, by understanding it you become part of it, or it becomes part of you. The pieces are set up to take you in.

AR Is that how you see your work in general? As operating on the edge of things like physics, consciousness and religion?

PM: With Singularity I was trying to understand it as a form, which is different from the experience of a metaphysical singularity or conscious singularity. You could say it’s a kind of enlightened state. Do I believe in those things? Do I experience them? Well, to some degree, I guess, yes, but in another way I was interested in the subject as a form. Consciousness is an interesting subject to me.

AR Has it always been?

PM: I think so.

AR Over time, as you look back on works, does your understanding of them or relationship with them change?

There’s an evolution of thinking, but they still deal with cultural conditioning and repression, or desire, and in Freudian terms some sort of ID that has always been in the work

PM: No, there’s an evolution of thinking, but they still deal with cultural conditioning and repression, or desire, and in Freudian terms some sort of ID that has always been in the work. And there’s always been the attempt of culture to put a cap on it, and it’s that – that struggle and that relationship to culture and conditioning, and then its manifestation in tyranny or trauma or brutality – that is part of the work. Always has been. And then that relationship to some sort of skin of normality and its relationship to the corporate, and the drive of the corporate, and the drive for power, and power over others and its relationship to the repressed drive. I think it’s all part of my work, and visible, and it exists in these pieces.

AR And do you think you have more concerns about how culture’s deployed in those power situations now than you did 20 years ago?

PM: It’s an increasing concern, yes; by making art, I’m always in it. It’s in every piece, so the conversation never leaves me. The involvement never ends, I’m always seeking out a reference and the conversation is continuing. But so much of the making of art is an action within the physicality of stuff, whether it’s sculpture in its direct physicalness, or performance and its direct physicalness within creating an action, or direct physicalness in an action that might leave an object. I recognise it within verbal or written language, drawing or how I approach writing now.

AR I guess when I look at Chop Chop I see all these actions, dropping, throwing, pushing, as much as I see an object. I see traces of how the material was manipulated.

PM: Yeah, but you don’t really know which ones ended up staying that way. I actually went through and altered certain things. So, yes, for the most part. I’m careful not to alter something from the serve. Like, when I take and stand that wooden thing up, you know. It would be slightly risky because what created that thing was the perfect, uncompromised gesture. To alter it could immediately create a contrivedness. It’s not that contriving couldn’t be interesting, but for the most part that piece has a sense of wholeness, I think. That would reflect a living thing.

AR I guess, from early on in your career, you were an outsider to some degree; now, when you are with a big gallery, with production opportunities, and people look to you as an artist, does that change the way you work at all?

PM: Yes, in some ways. I didn’t have as many opportunities: in the 1970s once in a while some sort of gallery museum thing, but for the most part I didn’t have that. I would show in my own studio, or something, and the work continued, I couldn’t do as much, because I had a job or I had to live, but then you end up in a gallery like this and now you have an opportunity to show every year. There’s other things that change: there’s more access to people, more access to money to produce.

But I think there’s still the struggle with work, with better pieces, with not thinking, ‘Wow, what is this?’ Or making something and a year later hating it, or a year later seeing something new. The opportunities are there. When there’s more money, there’s help to do things. In fact in some cases I can just fail more because I can make more and there’s an opportunity. You say, ‘Wow,’ you know, ‘Why did I just make that?’ I make it and I think, ‘That’s got nothing to do with what I’m interested in.’ It’s just an inkling. I did it because I could do it. Then you’re stuck with it. So, the whole thing of the process of making art and struggling with what something is, and whether it does something, or feels like something, is still there. It’s no different.

Paul McCarthy Chop Chop, Chopper, Amputation, from September 2015 Feature
Chop Chop, Chopper, Amputation, 2013, clay, wood, mixed materials, 351 × 552 × 229 cm. Photo: Walla Walla Foundry. © the artist Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

AR It’s also partly about expectations. I guess an audience now coming into the gallery on Art Weekend in Zürich has expectations based on your past work and what they know of you and your art. And maybe you don’t have to deal with that so much at the beginning of your career, when people are like, ‘Who is this guy?’

PM: Yes, I would guess that having more of a presence has changed something with what I do; I have to deal with certain aspects of that, that I didn’t have to deal with before. But in some ways they were there pretty early on in some form. Maybe not to the scale of now, but once the work did enter the public, in the 1970s, I was having to deal with issues with that, and public issues. Going back to your first question, I can’t say that Hollywood and Disney or Los Angeles didn’t influence my work. It absolutely did, and I can’t say that my position within the artworld hasn’t influenced or changed what I do, but I do think that I am dealing with a lot of the same attempts and the same discursive failures, or questions, that I was then. It’s really between me and the work most of the time.

AR How do you react to the failures?

PM: Oh, the failures. How I react, oh God. One way, they sometimes turn into something else. Like: you see the failure, you realise what you don’t want to do.

AR Is it something you get more comfortable with over time, once you’ve dealt with some things not working out? Or is it still as annoying?

PM: I have regrets about waste; waste of time. ‘What did I do that for? I can’t take it back.’ Some pieces I think of as not so successful lead to something else really quick. Others, it’s more subtle. The pieces exist in a more subtle way with me, and who knows, in five to ten years, what I think of them? Maybe it becomes a body of work that is linear or has a trajectory, that went on for a while, and there’s an aspect that is still interesting to me, or seems significant enough to do them. I don’t totally regret them. And then there’s pieces in which the attempt is made to break away from what I think is the failure of pieces, or even the subtle failures. I make the attempt and they fade or they fail in aspects. There’s something about moving to the next piece, moving to the next thing. There’s always this: the next one.

AR Is there a flow in that, from one body of work to the next? Does a new body of work start emerging as you’re working on the old body?

PM: Right now, I’m in the midst of Stage Coach [a long-term, multiplatform project based around the John Wayne western], but White Snow is set up in the studio, in one of the buildings, and, you know, there’s the thing of going back to it, and wanting to. So those two pieces are going simultaneously. Like, one’s got energy into it. With Stage Coach real people are being brought onboard. Real objects are being made. Most pieces are going simultaneously.

AR You’re working with actors in Stage Coach, working with other people who might do things that might go beyond what you intended. Is that different from a material behaving that way?

PM: In some ways I don’t know what Stage Coach will be because it does involve a number of people. I’ve searched out people that I thought could respond to the material, what I wanted to do, and have an understanding of an improvisation. We’ll see what happens when we really get going.

With the question of people, we did all these life casts. At first, the people have to agree to that and be willing to say, ‘I’m OK with this: it’s not an issue for me in terms of where my body is, or how it’s exposed, and it’s not an issue with the claustrophobia, with the position.’ They have to be relaxed. Then that’s all videotaped. In terms of Spin Offs, 400 drawings were made. That whole process became a real journey: there are scripts and drawings, and the script can be dialogue, it can be what I think is going to happen, and then the drawings are trying to visualise the positions of people at certain moments.

AR I guess, when you’re describing working with people on the film, it seems like you propose something and there’s an immediate action, or reaction to what you proposed. Whereas with a sculpture, for instance, and a relationship with the audience, you don’t have to be here when that reaction takes place.

PM: That’s the nature of theatre, or performance, with a public, and there’s an energy that’ll drive a piece. It’ll move them. They’re affected for sure.

AR Does that give you pleasure? Is that some way you judge the success of the work?

PM: I think, in one way, I want to remove them. When I did performances in the past, I would always go into the state where I start, you know, hiding under a table and asking them to leave, even though I know they’re not going to. Or I would start saying, ‘Don’t pay attention to them. They’re idiots.’ It was a character. It’s not that I believed they’re idiots, or maybe I did, I don’t know, but it’s a character. I did that in paintings: with the paintings in WS SC [a show of paintings related to White Snow and Stage Coach that took place at Hauser & Wirth London in 2014] I often did them in a character and the character would talk about hating the painting. By doing that I kind of freed myself.

AR Freed yourself from yourself?

PM: I removed myself, yeah. As a way of removing the decisions that I would make that would control it, or contrive it…

AR But why would you want to do that?

PM: Because I think that it can allow things to happen that I couldn’t make happen otherwise.

AR But nevertheless there must be a part of you that’s still in control of it? Otherwise you’d be off to a psychologist.

PM: Yes, there is. I’m not totally gobbledegook. Like, somebody once said, ‘Are you in a trance?’ I said, ‘No, dear. I’m not in a trance. I’m way more focused.’

AR Is that character something that you have in mind before you start? Or is it just something that develops as you’re working?

PM: It goes both ways. They alter, or at one point I just don’t even care about it and go back to dealing with the piece in a very me, artist, shtick.

AR We’re sitting outside this atomised body of yours in Chop Chop. This body that’s been dismembered. Does that relate to the use of the characters in the painting?

Is it my issues of self-destruction? Or are they the issues of shame and destruction within the culture?

PM: Is it my issues of self-destruction? Or are they the issues of shame and destruction within the culture? In a way, embodying something that is the whole subject of the person, the private and the public, gets pretty grey and pretty confusing. I sometimes think it’s strange how the personal and the private can get mixed with the cultural, or the public, and you’re making a piece that’s quite traumatic and quite private, and it involves other people: it can be damaging. Writers do it all the time. Writers will find themselves describing a situation that is completely private, loaded. They try to disguise it, use elements to disguise it: different location, different names, different gender, they replace a human with an object, and they’re mining their selves. I’m only saying writers because that’s one people can directly connect with, but actors do it. And I do it as an artist. Like, it can be a drawing. The private can be hidden in there, and then people realise it. They realise, ‘Oh, that’s me.’ You go, ‘No,’ but yes.

AR Do you think an audience wants to find the real Paul McCarthy in your work?

PR: The private and the public is all twisted. I think the audience is very aware of when something speaks of them, and they find themselves, like, ‘This is not Paul McCarthy, this is me. This is who we are. This image of self-destruction is, actually, not Paul McCarthy. Or maybe it is initially within Paul McCarthy, but it’s actually us. I think that will is super-potent. All of a sudden, you carry the burden. You realise the trauma that’s being represented.

This article was first published in the September 2015 issue.