Do we still need Paul McCarthy? Once a criminally overlooked provocateur whose performances carried a powerful urgency in the late sixties and seventies, he is now firmly entrenched in both the art-historical canon and the global network of high-end art institutions.While he didn’t make his first Whitney Biennial until 1995, the past decade has seen major shows across Europe and the United States. The Renaissance Society has taken an unusual tack however, building a show exclusively from recent drawings rather than his spectacular sculptures and videos. Whatever its shortcomings, the exhibition makes an important contribution to McCarthy scholarship by highlighting this little-known aspect of his practice.
And the shortcomings are manifest. As I enter, I’m confronted by two monumental drawings on the Renaissance Society’s north wall. They’re standard McCarthy fare: giant renderings of Disney princesses smeared with paint, overlaid with limp dicks and collaged porn. In each drawing, the repetitive vaginal motifs are literalized by a tear in the paper’s center. The (fairly mild by now) message about commercial sheen and abjection is driven home with didactic force. If McCarthy demonstrates a strong mastery of line and pentimento throughout the exhibition, he also stages an obsession with sex and Hollywood that is stunningly banal.
Involved with Judy Chicago’s Feminist Art Program in the seventies, McCarthy never took a simply misogynistic interest in masturbation, masochism and torture. He used the grotesque as a strategy of estrangement, cleverly showing how the fake and the real intersected at the site of gendered violence. “One knows the violence is victimless, but can’t help but be mortified,” as art historian Cary Levine wrote of his earlier work. But if these drawings are anything to go by, his belly has lost a little fire. The mortifications have grown stale, the misogyny more pronounced, the Freudian excess more self-indulgent than critical. I suspect that his sketched violence isn’t so victimless either. These randy fantasies of porn and princesses, read against the background of college students fighting gendered and racial violence at Missouri and Princeton, rub me wrong. We don’t need this Paul McCarthy any more. (Luke A. Fidler)
Through January 24 at The Renaissance Society, 5811 South Ellis
Elliot Josephine Leila Reichert is a curator, critic and editor. She is the inaugural Curator of Contemporary Art at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University. She was formerly Curatorial Fellow at the Chicago Artists Coalition, Art Editor of Newcity and Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University.