Paul McCarthy: The King, The Island, The Train, The House, The Ship @ Hauser & Wirth Galleries

Los Angeles-based artist Paul McCarthy presents what is considered to be the biggest solo show in London in 2011. Titled ‘The King, The Island, The Train, The House, The Ship’, the exhibition is spread between the Savile Row and Piccadilly galleries of Hauser & Wirth as well as an outdoor location at St. James’s Square and it consists of sculptures, installations and drawings created by the artist during the last decade.

‘Pig Island’ is first work occupying the entire North gallery at Saville Row. This is a vast installation that McCarthy has been working on for years. It is constructed with blocks of polystyrene, splintered wood, clay, spray paint, cast body parts and empty fast food buckets surrounded by blue carpeting. There are four stepladders at each corner of the island, which visitors can use to survey the island’s pandemonium from an elevated point. This is a recreation of McCarthy’s chaotic studio, cluttered with Hollywood star figures, innumerable other objects whereas the presence of George W. Bush’s figure prepares us for the scandalous sculpture at the South gallery. ‘Train, Mechanical’ is a large animatronic sculpture in which two horrific caricatures of Bush sodomise pigs (see video below). The employment of pink coloured latex for flesh as well as the intense noise generated from the complicated machine that moves it, make the sculpture profoundly gruesome while sensors help the two heads detect and follow you around the room. In the adjacent room one finds two ‘still’ sculptures with similar iconography and grotesqueness.

The Piccadilly gallery is dominated by ‘The King’, a large-scale multimedia installation consisting of a wooden platform, which hosts the life-sized silicone model of a naked and wounded McCarthy wearing a blond wig and sitting cable-tied on a swivel chair in a studio environment . Rows of church pews are placed in front of the stage for the viewer to sit. The installation is surrounded by airbrushed photorealistic paintings of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and others exposing themselves in paparazzi shots. Upstairs, McCarthy’s latest mechanical work ‘Mad House Jr.’ is a deliriously spinning cube on animatronic legs, powered by a vast network of cables. A video camera placed inside captures the motion and projects the spinning images on the adjacent wall. Three drawings displayed in the room next door refer to the preliminary construction of ‘Mad House Jr.’. A video being exhibited in the basement, bombards us with hundreds of colourful magazine advertisements and their slogans in great speed making it almost impossible to watch. In a final video, McCarthy’s silicone body replica is being torn apart by an assistant’s knife.

McCarthy is well known for his highly provocative performance art, installations and the media that he uses, sometimes including his personal participation. Often controversial and with sexual connotations, he challenges the viewer’s puritanism by producing gruesome works and stimulating controversy. With clear references to pop culture, he does not hesitate to recycle well recognised public figures and have them involved in surreal sexual scenarios. Despite the heavy criticism of being an ego maniac, McCarthy is still not afraid to expose himself naked and even ‘enhance’ his personal status with a religious harmony, elevate his presence to a divine sphere. It is pretty clear that he doesn’t care whether we love or hate his work. His outdoor bronze sculpture ‘Ship Adrift, Ship of Fools’ at St James’s Square depicts broken doll figurines on a boat, all crumped on the same platform heading towards an unknown destination. This sarcastic remark may easily be taken as the epilogue of the entire London show, clearly referring to today’s reality, which consists of people sharing the same ethos and social behaviour, thirsty for wealth and success and ready to achieve anything at any expense.
| Kostas Prapoglou