ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Paul McCarthy - 2016 - All about Snow White [EN, essay],
All about Snow White
Paul McCarthy at Xavier Hufkens
In Xavier Hufkens’ old and new galleries, a fascinating exhibition is being held with new work by Paul McCarthy (°1945), an internationally renowned artist from Los Angeles, who in our country is mainly known from solo exhibitions in the S.M.A.K. and the Middelheim Museum, now nine years ago.
The free market
A recent book by Sarah Thornton reveals that artists, such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, employ between 150 and 500 people. A leading architect is reported to employ as many as 1,500 employees. This is somewhat surprising for two reasons. Firstly, we wonder how a profession, which we associate with the realisation of ‘a personal form vision’ (Henry Moore), can be carried out by so many different people. Secondly, we wonder how many works have to be sold in order to pay for all these people. Who would buy all these works?
The answer to this question became apparent when, a few years ago, I was allowed to visit a well-known bronze foundry in our country, where I found rows of identical sculptures by a number of prosperous Flemish artists. They reminded me of a man from my home village who did very well out of the sale of skilfully welded roosters, which were apparently very sought after by owners of carefully tended lawns throughout the country. This is also the case with the hideous bronze sculptures of some of our leading artists.
As we know, 10% of the world’s population is becoming richer and richer, but this comfortable growth rate is not proportionate to the scorching accumulation of capital by the 1% richest on the planet, who own, among other things, all the banks. Like a black hole, this capital is inevitably attracting all the other liquid assets, much to the despair of the rich themselves, whose financial advisers do not know what to do with all this money. On the event horizon of this black hole, the art market takes place, like a thin layer of foam, created by the laundering of black money.
“The art market is much bigger than everyone thinks,” Damien Hirst explains to Thornton. How big? In order to understand its scope, we can rely on a remark from Koons. He tells the same, somewhat naive journalist that the price of his works of art increases as more works circulate on the market. This seems to be in contradiction with the law of supply and demand, until you realise that demand must be so high that the chances that prices rise, increase when there are more goods on the market.
But how many works would Koons then sell? How many galleries are selling his work? How many works are being auctioned? And what kind of works would they be? Probably they are endless variations on the same form and mostly just copies: dozens for Belgian artists and hundreds for international artists. I recently saw three painted vases by Ai Wei Wei, of which you could be sure that there are hundreds in circulation, all sucked into that black hole, sometimes displayed in a living room or bedroom, but usually just sitting in secure warehouses, where they occasionally change owners. All this no longer has anything to do with exhibitions. Exhibitions are much like some shabby grocery stores: the actual transaction takes place behind the scenes.
For all these reasons, my expectations were high when I heard that Xavier Hufkens would display work by Paul McCarthy. Even if you took the title of the exhibition as your starting point, in which the works were announced as ‘spin-offs’, which could be translated as by-products. Striking title, I thought, the man has guts.
What he actually means by this title, however, is that his works originate as unpredictable by-products of some great adventures. A good thing about his work is that you can also see this. In the first room on the left of the main gallery, we find three rubber ‘heads’ lying on the ground, reaching to hip level, each in a different colour: yellow, red and blue. Two of these heads are realistic in part, while the third seems to contain abstract, rectangular and round body openings. McCarthy shares with me and another person that this third head is a cast of the stiff core that is hidden in every realistic head, to prevent the sculpture from collapsing. The rectangular and circular openings are purely functional and actually serve to grip the sculpture’s flexible outer layer, which is made of titanium silicones. McCarthy saw that this core also looked like a head and decided to make ‘real’ sculptures out of it as well. Some protruding parts of the sculpture are reinforced on the inside with metal tubes. Now, these tubes are also used to skewer pieces from different sculptures. In the large cowboy sculpture in the new gallery, they return as rods that pierce the eyes of the cowboy (or seem to stick out of them like spikes).
Freedom of form
McCarty’s freedom of form is as astonishing as it is liberating. In the old gallery, he mainly shows sculptures that were sculpted using CNC machines: computer-controlled cutting machines. In the new gallery he shows a monumental sculpture that was handmade, but not without using ready-made PU foam shapes (for the horses’ bodies) that are usually used by taxidermists.
Appearing and disappearing
When McCarthy made a solo exhibition for the S.M.A.K. in 2007, I was able to witness his dedication first hand. While an impressive team built the entire exhibition, I saw how, for three weeks, he concentrated mainly on the hanging of one section, where drawings, sculptures and photographs of ‘Michael and Bubbles’ were on display. When I asked the artist what he was trying to do, he replied that he was trying to make the drawings more present, so that they would be perceived as works that were as important as the sculptures. Here, too, he showed the sculpture at various stages of the creation process. At first, I thought that he did this to make the image of ‘Michael and Bubbles’ appear and disappear at the same time, but later I realised that the ‘unfinished’ sculptures were just as finished as the most complete version. In this way, McCarthy’s oeuvre seems to encompass the archaic Greek period, the Hellenistic and subsequent Gothic approach. The man likes to make shapes, lines and volumes appear and disappear, as we see in Warhol’s multiple screen prints.
During a public conversation with Bart De Baere, McCarthy relates that he doesn’t really know what the central concrete goal of his activities would be. “I do build film sets,” he says, ‘and I work with actors and props, but in the end it generates 40 hours of film. Not a full-length film, but something incontrollable. Characters from one project, such as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, also pop up in the others. Recently, my son suggested restarting and making a long camera move away from a set. New images and possibilities immediately emerged.”
What you feel more with McCarthy than any other artist, I think, is that he constructs images in order to be able to see them. That’s why he can use hundreds of assistants. They all set to work, and he combines their results to create new objects that evoke images which are able to touch him. This method of working is very similar to the way some directors and choreographers create theatre and dance: by letting the actors, the dancers and all other staff members make proposals and try out things that are steadily falling into place like a giant jigsaw puzzle. This affinity probably stems from the fact that McCarthy decided in the 70s to do performances in a ‘black box’ (a darkened space) instead of, for example, on the street. As a result, other artistic possibilities have presented themselves enabling McCarthy to achieve perfectly controlled images and to conjure up dream worlds.
When, in 2007, I finally went to look at the completed hanging that McCarthy had personally worked on at the S.M.A.K. for three weeks, my gaze was almost automatically drawn to the long row of drawings, which I started to study one by one. Suddenly, I saw that in these drawings, Michael and Bubbles sometimes transformed into a mother with a Marilyn Monroe hairstyle holding a bearded child on her lap. It was a gripping moment. “Just like the monkey or the child on Michael Jackson’s lap, this little Paul cannot escape the suffocating grip of his mother,” I thought.
The beautiful and moving thing about McCarthy’s work is that the ‘Michael and Bubbles’ sculpture does not necessarily result from a particular childhood memory, nor can it, or indeed, should it, be traced back to it. Rather, it seems to be the upshot of patiently shifting images over each other until a special pattern emerges. The artist shifts images to look, think and feel, not to ‘explain’ or ‘interpret’ anything.
In the garden of the gallery, Paul McCarthy and Bart de Baere eye up a sculpture in which Snow White is duplicated in an idealised character and in a frail, realistically depicted naked young lady. At the feet of this paradoxical figure, is Thumper lying on his back and rocking with laughter, thereby shamelessly showing his mushroom-shaped penis in erection. De Baere asks McCarthy whether the sculpture also contains a critique of Disney. McCarthy claims it doesn’t. The new, bourgeoning aspects of the sculpture actually stem from the logic of Disney himself, he says, who blew up, stretched out or crushed his figures freely. “I make things to be able to see them,” he says, “not to criticise anything or anyone. I am struck by the impressive lines of the sculpture, which surprisingly emerge from Disney’s three-dimensional drawings.”
In 2007, Wim Delvoye showed me erotic Disney drawings, which he produced for his own entertainment and kept in one of his drawers. Why should Disney be criticised? What would that whole, so-called despicable ‘Disneyfication’ actually consist of? Would there be a parallel with the left-wing condemnation of the 1970s disco music? In those days as well, many intellectuals simply ignored the fact that that music is often well made, just as you cannot deny that the staff of the Disney studio have designed a drawing style that is not only unique, but also extremely effective. I wonder if this magical effectiveness would stem from the fact that these drawings had to be as economical as possible (for example without hatching), but at the same time had to suggest as much volume as possible. For it is wonderful to see how the lines of this studio lend themselves to a conversion into a kind of super-Hellenistic sculpture (which is then cut in half, skewered together, tarnished and so on).
When my son Cyriel was three (now 20 years ago), I discovered that he was convinced that all people were born as men. On their third birthday, he assured me, it was decided whether they would remain a boy or would be changed into a girl by a surgical procedure. He had derived this insight from Walt Disney’s film Snow White, in which, according to my son, you could clearly see, during the dark storm scene with the hunter, how the young heroine was being castrated. That’s why she’s called ‘Snee-witje’ (Cut White (1)),’ he assured me.
There is no doubt that the evocative power of some Disney films has to do with the fact that they are based on folk tales, which contain many powerful images. But there is also something magical about the drawings, which, by their probably functional origins, are linked to the equally functional, as well as elegant, wiring of our brain. In this exhibition by McCarthy, you can feel this, but you can also feel how someone goes even further, by showing – in a sculptural way – where shapes come from and where they disappear again.
Montagne de Miel, September 26th 2016
(1) ‘Snee’ is the Dutch word for ‘cut’, ‘Sneeuw’ means ‘snow’. Followed by the word ‘white’, ‘Snee’ and ‘Sneeuw’ are pronounced in exactly the same way.