An Artist Exposing Fascism Through Provocation

AS AN ADMIRER of Paul McCarthy — an artist known for his multidisciplinary, frequently scatological works that combine performance, drawing, painting, video and sculpture, often simultaneously — I’ve seen him in a variety of exposed moments and compromised positions that are difficult to describe in terms that The New York Times’s standards department would consider appropriate. I’ve seen McCarthy, nude except for a pair of black socks and a rubber baby mask, with his genitals tightly tucked between his legs (1998’s “Sod and Sodie Sock Comp O.S.O.”); I’ve seen him spread open his buttocks to reveal his anus (1973’s “Glass Case”); I’ve seen his anus and genitals covered in ketchup and raw meat (1975’s “Tubbing,” among other works); I’ve seen him ejaculate onto a picture of Marilyn Monroe (1975’s “Marilyn Monroe”); I’ve seen him in a sea captain’s uniform, his pants around his ankles, as well as his underwear, sagging from a load of ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise, a concoction McCarthy drinks by running a long hose from the underwear directly into his mouth (“Death Ship,” from 1983). It would be easy to argue that no other artist has so regularly degraded himself for public consumption.

McCarthy’s work has always concerned our shared capacity for ugliness, but at 75, he’s turned to explicitly grappling with fascism, a theme he’s been touching on in some way or another for several decades. Distilled to its essentials, fascism is history doomed to repeat itself over and over, “a boot stamping on a human face — forever,” as George Orwell so memorably put it in his novel “1984.” This coincides with McCarthy’s work, which often involves its author exploring unmentionable abominations so frequently that they become ordinary, a routine of debasement. Broadcasting his own embarrassment and suffering becomes an attempt to work through something inherently disgusting about human nature itself. A 2017-19 project, “NV, Night Vater,” inspired by the 1974 drama “The Night Porter” — featuring an elaborate, disorienting, 100-foot-long, 40-foot-wide set that comprises a series of rooms, including a re-creation of the apartment from the film where an ex-Nazi and a former concentration camp prisoner engage in a sadomasochistic relationship — led to his most recent work, “A&E” (2019-present) in which McCarthy plays a version of Adolf Hitler. The title “A&E” is his shorthand for Adolf and Eva — as in Eva Braun, the Führer’s mistress, played by the German actress Lilith Stangenberg — but, as is typical in his work, the performances contain multiple layers. Those letters also stand for Adam and Eve, and arts and entertainment. All of these strands inform the characters, who become bizarre amalgamations: Not quite serious portrayals of Hitler and Eva Braun — or, for that matter, Adam and Eve — they contain within them the archetypes of what we perceive as evil, and what we believe to be innocent. As part of the performance, McCarthy produced drawings in character, many of which are on view this month at his New York gallery Hauser & Wirth, his first solo show of new work there in four years. Stangenberg, who described herself as the project’s “midwife,” collaborated closely with McCarthy on these works, performing various actions while he drew and painted — including lying on top of the canvas, or underneath the artist — an attempt to produce works by, as McCarthy put it, “two humans occupying one mind.” The drawings look like those a child might produce for a social worker to explain a traumatic experience.

“We were sort of mining an area that’s problematic,” McCarthy said to me during a series of Zoom interviews in the second half of last year. We both laughed at this understatement. What could possibly be more problematic than Hitler? The artist said that after Trump’s election, he was fascinated by the number of people he would hear comparing Trump to Hitler, tossing around the term “fascism” seemingly without consideration for the history the word contains. He took issue with this, not because the comparison wasn’t valid but because of how casually people made it. “To a degree, Nazi Germany is a case of hypnotism,” he said. “Like, they believed it. And it was easy to go, ‘They made Germany an evil population, because they’re evil by nature.’” This, he said, was absurd. “We’re all capable of it, right? Whatever was ignited in them can be ignited in us. And we see it. What are we watching right now?” He paused and added: “QAnon, dude!” (He was referring to the pro-Trump internet conspiracy theory that perpetuates centuries-old anti-Semitic ideas.) “What part of the population do you need to create fascism?” he continued. “You don’t need the whole population. For me it was like, yeah, the subject’s problematic, but it’s the subject.”

He was speaking to me from his house in Los Angeles, where he’s lived since 1970. The only thing I could see behind him was a wooden cutout of Santa Claus — it was July — whom he resembles. That seemed to sum up something about McCarthy, whose ability to confront topics that so many others would shrink from is often presented with a kitschy sense of humor. One of my favorite works of his is 1992’s “Cultural Gothic,” an installation of fiberglass animatronic sculptures (inspired by rides at Disneyland, including Pirates of the Caribbean), featuring a father and son standing in a field with a goat. The father has his hands resting proudly on the shoulders of the son, who looks ecstatic. It appears like an earnest family portrait, a true expression of paternal love, and it is that, to some extent, except, well, the father happens to be encouraging his son to fornicate with the goat.

McCarthy’s “Death Ship” (1983).

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