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The “A&E” in Hauser & Wirth’s recent exhibition, ‘Paul McCarthy. A&E Drawings A&E Drawing Session 2021 With Lilith Stangenberg,’ stands, in part, for Adolf Hitler and his wife Eva Braun1—two figures represented across the large-scale drawings in beautifully deranged, gestural scrawls of smudged charcoal highlighted with colorful oil stick. Works like A&E, ASSSS, Santa Anita session (2020) set the prevailing mood, depicting Hitler using his penis to insert a miniature Mickey Mouse into Braun’s anus. In case there was any uncertainty, the artist clarifies the scene in writing: “EVA FUCK IN THE ASSSS.”
McCarthy, now 77, produced these drawings during a series of taped performances with 34-year-old German actor and longtime collaborator Lilith Stangenberg; A&E evolved from NV Night Vater (2019–), their ongoing film series loosely based on the 1974 Nazi S&M thriller The Night Porter. Tucked upstairs in the gallery mezzanine, one two-channel video featured a fake-mustached McCarthy mostly naked from the waist down, playing Adolf opposite Stangenberg’s Eva, who was mostly naked from the waist up. Wedged clumsily between a stack of tables in a white studio, McCarthy crawls on his hands and knees, grunting and swearing as he scribbles, drifting in and out of awareness of Stangenberg’s body. She strips down from a Halloween-quality dirndl to white stockings and panties, grinding against the drawings while scoring the scene with random obscenities: “My father fucks me in the nostrils!” The scene continues for a full hour and 45 minutes, the effect less provocative than it is tedious. The coarse, guttural aimlessness, is classic McCarthy, rehashing the five-decade-old formula we’ve seen many times before.
McCarthy’s distinguished practice of abject spectacle emerged in the early 1960s, a descendant of avant-garde movements in action painting, Happenings, and non-narrative filmmaking. Akin to the shitting and pissing of Viennese Actionists, McCarthy’s depravity-laden films, drawings, and installations are often products of dissociative, costumed performances that earned his place in the canon by diving into the nightmarish depths where the mind is loath to go. “He makes plain the dysfunctionalism of the American dream,”2 New Museum director Lisa Phillips wrote of McCarthy in 2000. Often, that involves his sticking dicks in things: the jar of mayonnaise in Sailor’s Meat (Sailor’s Delight) (1975), or the tree in his installation The Garden (1991–92).
Since the turn of the century, the artist’s work has bloomed into big-budget productions of more explicit, higher-definition depictions of sexual violence —just as belief in the American Dream has fallen into precipitous decline. His latest and largest works take aim at vintage American ideals as they once existed in the entertainment industry, ratcheting up the libidinous underbellies of Disney fairytales and Hollywood Westerns in grotesque reinterpretations. His latest Hitler project, according to the press release, is an exploration of fascism and “the current political climate,”3 although it doesn’t feel very current at all. Today, the threat of fascism looms amid a constellation of bad actors and the simultaneous erosion of our civil rights. By contrast, the symbolic Hitler embodies a naive reflex to pin society’s undoing onto a singular bogeyman—in other words, reductive, dated, low-hanging fruit.
The political incisiveness of McCarthy sticking his dick in things might be wildly overstated, but critics tend to undersell the personal—that is, the distinctly 20th century, European-American male perspective deftly captured in his work. Where art history tells us that sexual violence in the work of his female contemporaries is about a particularly female experience, for example, rape in McCarthy’s work is about America. These generalized readings elide an evident guilt, nostalgia, and kink for a bygone Germanic heritage. (Across McCarthy’s oeuvre, see: recurring references to Snow White and Heidi, or Stangenberg reading aloud from a German-language copy of Venus in Furs.) His portrayals of Walt Disney, Hitler, and many other figures consistently return to the specific narcissistic archetype of male privilege, an ideal vehicle to indulge in the deepest, darkest toxic schoolboy taboos: shouting “shit” and “fuck” at beautiful naked women; mixing ketchup and chocolate syrup into repulsive concoctions; beating and raping; or clandestinely urinating in someone’s soup.
Exploring the full range of the human condition is not a bad thing; it is art’s highest function. Like the late Viennese Actionist Hermann Nitsch, who sought catharsis through blood-and-guts spectacle,4 McCarthy momentarily sheds the repression of the so-called “degenerate” impulses in his performances, creating a safe space to enjoy and examine unique proclivities. (He’s described this as “venting.”5) An important distinction between McCarthy and Nitsch’s work, however, is that while Nitsch’s primary concern was his audience’s experience, McCarthy has said that he is “not trying to satisfy an audience,” but that his “responsibility is to the ideas.”6 At the heart of McCarthy’s practice is the exploration of power—not just through the powerful figures he portrays, but the power instilled in an artist who has accumulated great wealth and esteem for inserting his penis where it’s not wanted. With the art world’s blessing, McCarthy occupies an insulated space of great privilege, where the American Dream seems to be alive and well, and fascism is not a real threat, but a kink. From the outside looking in, this space looks like great fun: its occupants freely go where society says not to, regardless of how many of us might say, “please don’t.”
This review was originally published in Carla issue 30.