Paul McCarthy by Paul Sietsema
Having just picked up my passport for an upcoming trip to Europe, long lines, endless paperwork, I reached Paul on his cel phone and was rushing to get on a freeway to wind my way up to Pasadena from Hollywood. I hadn’t seen Paul for a couple of years and was not sure what to expect, he seemed as laid-back as always, always willing to be a part of something, “a breezer” someone from his gallery said. I suppose you could say I didn’t have to think too long choosing somebody for this piece,I have known Paul now for about five years, well, I guess its more like I was a student of his for three, and now haven’t seen him for two. But, nonetheless, he stuck out among my teachers at UCLA, this mainly because of his level of commitment to his work, in his life, the way his intellect informs and is informed by his work, the rich, complex, complicated aesthetic of his work, the way the intuitive mixes with the self-consciously constructed, and perhaps above all, a commitment to a type of work that was/is/can be extremely challenging forviewers, modern and otherwise. Paul’s work gets down and dirty, combines the societally taboo with the sort of fucked-up media timing that kicks us where it really hurts, where our brains, imaginations, perceptions have been trained to receive media in a certain way, with a certain timing, Paul twists this, in videos like Bossy Burger (1991), Heidi (1992), Painter (1995), others, actions go on for too long, Blam! a psychological wall is slammed into, longer still, viewer fatigue sets in, longer still, attention is regained but the action perceived know seems alien, longer still, viewers are stretched to the limit of their attention, and then Blam! another wall is broken down and we are again somewhere new but the action has not changed, only the carrier of the action, normally metered out by correct timing, has changed, been extended, fucked with, fucks with our brains, invades our subconscious with something akin to the mental dishevelment one experiences when encountering physical violence in person, in actuality, on video, television, cinema, turned back onto itself, into itself, sending shockwaves through our bodies, our psyches as Paul’s constructed, and not, persona turns itself inside out, overpowers the timing of media and is in turn overpowered by it, twisting and echoed in a hall of mirrors that is structured by, layered with, all which exists at the juncture of acceptable behavior and psychosis, constructed character and personal madness, all exposing certain “truths” about ourselves, our animal instincts, the relationship of intellect to ritual, of aesthetics to schizophrenia, of performance and action and perhaps art to a certain kind of autism . . .
As I descend on his house, the house he built, it looking quite a bit like his work, but done so early, must have been the mid seventies, the late seventies, oh, I can’t remember, I try not to feel like some kind of vulture, which must be so common now that Paul’s career is more established, his retrospective about to open in Los Angeles and later on in New York, but I know what I am after, it is to show you what I see what I experience when I am around Paul, the sort of intellectual intoxication that I can only get from an artist, one not afraid to not know exactly what they are doing, one not afraid to commit a life to the pursuit of something which can not be squared up using any sort or combination of societal contexts, to do something which is one’s own and be passionate about it, to have the kind of effect on a young artist which can only be described as life-changing, perhaps in some way matching the meaning of “mentor” even if one does not subscribe to such conventional ideas of education, of maturation, of accomplishment, perhaps previously and without knowing, eager to find some example of the mixture in ones work of the personal, the intuitive, with the intellectual, the constructed, in certain terms a type of indeterminately specific societal critique which itself is kept aloft, contained by, supported by the armature of the personal subconscious, itself wavering between a construction and what must somewhere at some point be someone red-lining his own mental ability/stability, something akin to flying, to euphoria, to drunkenness, to hallucination revelatory and otherwise, and having found this previously mentioned mix in someone you have met, who’s work you have admired, has floored you since the first time you have laid eyes on it, someone who once met in person does not detract from the immensity of their work but adds to it, someone who has sustained a certain, I suppose I should say large, amount of experimentation in their work over a very
long period of time, someone who sets the example of a career that is not a “career” but something else, something more meaningful for them, for us, perhaps you would wish to give something back, perhaps it is your own work which does this, perhaps just letting them know is something . . .
Now Paul is scratching something on an envelope, in his studio, a diagram, a plan, an explanation of a piece he has just shown in Switzerland, I am remembering how this is how his conversations go, drawing and talking, words never enough, the explanations often being too spatial, too complex, to not use the conventions of plan, perspective, front view, back view, things to be fucked with and then used again to explain the even more complex, the even more fucked with, behind him a mountain of slides, of books, an endless archive of articles about him, about his work, and as I stand here Paul explains, “The Box” (1999), a sculpture, another piece he has shown in his show in Switzerland, that is a parallel space to the one we are standing in know, his downstairs studio, of a similar size, similar contents, and Paul is tilting his head, arching his body, bending into angular positions to demonstrate the experience he had of filming the sculpture, the studio turned on its side, Paul filming it from different angles, the orientation of this earth, with it’s gravity, its center, hopelessly lost, lost to the world of video, of film, with no influence of gravity, no true right or left, up or down, only the relationship to the camera, if you’re lucky, to the viewer, he tells me of losing his balance while filming this way, the singular mechanical eye, the camera placed over his own, causing him to lose his own orientation in space, to give himself over to the space of the medium, to the space of the sculpture, a certain type of structuralism, in no uncertain terms a slave to his medium, his studio, all of it’s contents, and through much labor and figuring, attached to tables, to walls, to floors, to ceilings that have all been turned on their sides, the contents applying new pressures, new forces, straining an environment that could certainly have existed with ease, did exist with ease, perhaps too much, while upright, now contained again on video, on film, it’s change in orientation now irrelevant except for the one filming, the one watching the film, where no orientation is possible, where upright is now sideways, where to film the space “correctly” would mean ones body protruding from a wall, straight out, at 90 degrees from said wall, which was a floor, must still be a floor, although no longer functional, well at least in the way it had been, and I guess now in fact functional, in a new way, in a more specific way, in a way that causes one to question, what a sculpture is or can be, perhaps what is not a sculpture, and perhaps what can exist with a foot in each world, a sculpture derived of photography, of the possibility of photography, sculpture as snapshot, his own photos of this studio, snapshots of snapshots . . .
I am standing in Paul’s studio, bending to my right, to my left, trying to experience what his sculpture must be like, and in my head I am in his studio, in his sculpture, in the house which he built, all of it cascading while he is drawing, sketching Saloon Theatre (1995-99), another piece from his show in Switzerland, on the envelope and explaining how each arm of the building is repeated, sort of, how the floors tilt, how the doors are staggered, mantels lowered, how dark the interior of the construction is, how film projections throughout are used, meant to orient the viewer in different ways, at different points, at different times, so that this false safety, this distraction, this spectacle, of cinema, of film, of perception, allows the viewer to lose his/her place in the room, to give themselves over to the media space, and then once again have to navigate the “fucked-up” true space they are in until they are distracted, disoriented, reoriented, again by another screen, another projection, another bit of film, showing the story of the happenings within a saloon, that does not really exist in the old west, does not even really exist in a film about the old west, a western, but merely hovers intangibly in the media space that exists at the intersection of these things, at which point one realizes, I realized, the state one is put into, the dislocation, leaving the saloon, the cruciform building, through the wrong arm, not knowing where one is, loosing ones balance, running into the wall, all correlate drunkenness with spatial disorientation with film, the act of viewing runs parallel to that which is depicted, the viewer becomes drunk, remember Wittgenstein, the structure of a sentence matching its subject, things start to be taken up in a kind of circle, a mobius strip of structuralism and its opposite, a supremely artificial vision, the western, that is caught up in its true nature, in its representation in film, a critique of perception and of film where each is constantly losing itself in the other, the viewer caught up also in the rip-tide of immersion, of balance, of drunkenness, a player in a structuralist drama which cannot easily be unraveled, as a sculptural experience, or in its relation to art history recent or otherwise . . .
I am about to leave for Europe for the first time, Paul is now telling me perhaps what it means to have a retrospective, I don’t mean really telling me but showing me his apprehensions, his want and need to put on a good show for his friends, for the people in the city in which he has worked, in which he has lived, in which he has built a career, I am standing on his porch, shivering in the late afternoon breeze with a box of transparencies, and a tube under my arm, a tube containing a poster from his show in Switzerland, it is a gift from Paul, it is the same one you have now . . .