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Paul McCarthy’s obscene art world

1 November 2014

The paintings presented in Paul McCarthy’s exhibition at Hauser & Wirth are invariably obscene. Painted in the artist’s trademark palette – a kitschy pink covered in smears of brown – the works depict caricatural figures that kill, copulate, torture and defecate.

In one work a male body hangs from a noose, his penis animated by a last pulse of blood. In another a figure is seen slitting a man’s throat, surrounded by scrawled words: ‘CUT OFF THE HEAD’, ‘CUT OFF THE PENIS’. Everywhere bodies are rendered in rough swathes of paint, their orifices literalised by violent punctures and cuts in the canvas. Eyes, mouths, vaginas and anuses gape. Fake painted hair dangles like clotted blood. In McCarthy’s twisted vision, even Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe is transformed into a coprophiliac’s dream.

Scattered across the surfaces of these works are images drawn from glossy magazines (advertisements for Louis Vuitton or Lancôme, for instance), in which women are invariably objectified (‘I only want to be perfectly me’, says an airbrushed face). These images are juxtaposed with explicit pornography cut out of magazines or printed off the internet, as well as images related to the wholesale commodification of the artworld (a Christie’s auction catalogue for contemporary art in which no work is valued at less than $500,000, a poster for Frieze Art Fair or a bottle of vintage Dom Perignon designed by Jeff Koons).

What is unnerving about these works, however, is not their iconography, violent and perverse as it may be. This aspect of the paintings simply reminds us of the grimace concealed behind every airbrushed smile, while its presence in a gallery is symptomatic of a permissive society in which anything goes but nothing really changes. What for me is most unsettling is the way in which, through the paintings’ repetition of motifs and their use of colour, everything merges with everything else. The longer you spend with these works the more things are reduced to a pinkish brown. The implication seems to be that there is no fundamental difference between violence, art, hard-core porn and mass-culture. Why? I would hazard that it is because each is motivated by money. And money, like death, is a great leveller.

McCarthy’s recent sculptural commission in the Place Vendôme in Paris, Tree, was met with strong opposition. (This is unsurprising given the affluence of the area – think haute couture, Botox and macaroons). An enraged passer-by is alleged to have assaulted the artist, and two days later the massive sculpture, an inflated ‘butt-plug’ that resembles a Christmas tree, was vandalised. McCarthy cancelled the project and decided that these events should inflect another show, ‘Chocolate Factory’, held at the newly renovated Monnaie de Paris.

That McCarthy’s chocolate factory – it produces small chocolate sculptures, some of them in the shape of butt plugs, for sale at 40 euros – is situated in a former mint should give us pause. The art market has proven itself to be resilient in the face of the global financial crisis. Art has become the most rarefied commodity of all, and in a world where art buyers worship the price they have paid for it, art’s content has become largely irrelevant. Murder, porn, butt plugs – it’s all the same. That McCarthy’s works display this bankruptcy is salutary. What is harder to swallow is that the artist is perhaps the greatest alchemist of all, able to transmute little chocolate butt plugs into coin.

‘Paul McCarthy: WS SC’ is at Hauser & Wirth, London, until 1 November.

‘Paul McCarthy: Chocolate Factory’ is at the Monnaie de Paris until 4 January 2015.

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