“Let me show you something, Peenie, Weenie.”

Still from Paul McCarthy, Penis Dip Painting (1974)

The first time I saw Paul McCarthy’s penis was during a hot New York summer in 2013. Partly to evade the oppressive, sticky heat I visited ‘Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy: Rebel Dabble Babble’ at Hauser & Wirth on 18th Street. The father and son collaboration was inspired by Nicholas Ray’s 1955 classic Hollywood film Rebel Without a Cause – and by the rumours of off‐screen antics between the director and stars James Dean and Natalie Wood.

The enormous gallery was dimly lit. The vast video and installation work featured two large stage sets with multiple videos projected along the walls. The soundtracks criss‐crossed to create an overwhelming cacophony of screamed expletives, grunts and howls. Flickering images of the sixty-seven year‐old’s penis were unavoidable from my vantage point in the middle of the gallery. I caught glimpses of the penis in various conditions: slippery with ketchup (McCarthy’s signature material), shimmering with a dousing of champagne, dangling beneath McCarthy on all fours or pressed against the body of his muse and co‐star Elyse Poppers. One screen depicted McCarthy on his back, enraged and naked in a shallow bath of custard. The penis clung to McCarthy’s thigh, viscous under layers of buttery yellow liquid.

Surveying his long career, I’ve deduced that McCarthy’s body of work is essentially held together by his penis – with diminishing levels of success. Born in 1945 in Salt Lake City, McCarthy moved to California and emerged as an artist amidst the period of the Vietnam War, widespread drug culture, Black Power, civil rights and the women’s movement. McCarthy drew insight from counterculture and achieved niche recognition for the innovative and humorous way he exposed the violent foundations of the sanitised world of popular culture. Using his body as a canvas of self‐obliteration and his own bodily secretions and excreta – saliva, sperm, urine, and faeces – McCarthy staged minimalist performances “one‐man orgies”[1]to intimate audiences. Naturally, his penis frequently took centre stage: Hot Dog (1974) saw McCarthy attach a bun to his penis, Penis Dip Painting (1974) is self‐explanatory, Grand Pop (1977) substitutes a penis for a mayonnaise bottle held between the legs, squirting creamy liquid over children’s toys, and Baby Boy, Baby Magic (1982) is basically just McCarthy rubbing his penis with a backdrop of dolls.

When he was an outsider it kind of worked but now that McCarthy’s practice is part of the mainstream – engorged with influence and money – that fatal combination of power and penis feels more exploitative than transgressive. McCarthy made his name in making visible the bleak reality of the American Dream through parody and farce, but now that he himself is a clichéd part of popular culture, his work essentially feeds from then reinforces the very issues he condemns. He claims to be critical but fails to interrogate his privileged position as a white, wealthy male, and there’s a distinct whiff of entitlement to the massive platform he currently occupies.

Since the turn of the twenty‐first century, and with the widespread boom that the international art world experienced during the same period, McCarthy has transformed into an art superstar with his own epic production house, a staff of thirty and works selling for millions of dollars. With the backing of one of the major gallery chains in the world McCarthy been shown at the Whitney, The New Museum, Tate Modern, Whitechapel Gallery and recently at the Monnaie de Paris (for which he received a slap and had his 24‐metre inflatable butt plug sculpture deflated by an aggrieved member of the public). His profile and value has literally ballooned since he first started experimenting with inflatables and monumentality in 2003.

When he works with women the weaknesses in McCarthy’s work is amplified as he regurgitates tired imagery of male dominance and abuse of the female form. McCarthy’s twisted interpretation of Rebel Without a Cause saw him play the double roles of Nicholas Ray and the father of James Dean’s character alongside Poppers who played a distressed, and mostly naked, Judy / Natalie Wood. Throughout the installation McCarthy and Poppers relentlessly abuse each other in an almost intolerable display of psychological and physical violence. The aggression is reciprocal but it’s undeniably McCarthy, the patriarch and creator of the work, who dominates. As the fictional father it’s his house, his art, ultimately he has the power. One in four women have experienced domestic abuse and although the fictional violence depicted by McCarthy is depicted as equal the known reality of aggression between couples is that women typically face the harshest consequences.

McCarthy ceased his live performances in 1984 and re‐invented himself as a visual artist creating video works. Unlike with a live performance, the camera directs the audience’s attention – we now look where he wants us to look, focus and zoom according to his direction. Speaking of the camera‐treatment of the female lead in an earlier work, McCarthy said, “[the camera] embraces her lovingly, moving up very close to her face, examining every pore of her body.”[2]In Rebel Dabble Babble the camera, directed by Damon, clings to Poppers’ naked body. Poppers, outnumbered by McCarthy and Damon, is continually under siege physically and by a dogged male gaze. McCarthy has bragged that Poppers secured the role by tolerating his lascivious questioning regarding her sex life during the interview for Rebel Dabble Babble. He criticised the other candidates for baulking at his interrogation, saying: “Elyse understood something that the others didn’t.”[3]

Running concurrently with Rebel Dabble Babble, and another outlet for McCarthy’s Poppers fixation, was ‘Paul McCarthy: Life Cast’ at Hauser & Wirth 69th Street. Silicone life‐sized casts of the artist and Poppers form a simpler, quieter exhibition than the all‐singing‐all‐dancing display on 18th Street. The casts of McCarthy are a morbid image of decay next to Popper, youthful with legs spread widely exposing her hairless vulva (to aid the moulding process Poppers removed all body hair, the result is quite a porny/paedophilic aesthetic). Gallerygoers took the objectified body of Poppers as a cue for an ogle fest. McCarthy condemned one man who took the opportunity to repeatedly photograph Poppers’ genitals during the show’s opening: “There’s a violation,” said McCarthy. “You know, she’s about as real as you’re going to get physically the outside of her body, but you think it’s fucking okay to make 100 photographs of her?”[4]It feels a bit hypocritical and territorial – as if he’s the only one authorised to violate his muse. In an interview, Poppers was asked what her father (inexplicably they don’t care to hear of her mother’s reaction) thought of seeing her revealed and defiled in the shows.[5]An exasperating line of thought on the part of the journalist, but it follows that the regressive material McCarthy presents also provokes regressive reportage.

In a catalogue essay, Ralph Rugoff says, “Paul McCarthy is a master of the taboo smash, the frontal blow that assaults our nice etiquette and systematic euphemisms.”[6]McCarthy is persistently lauded for slaughtering sacred cows and expressing himself freely. Opposing him generally signifies that you’re on the side of puritanical censorship. But really, is dirty Disney really subversive or interesting anymore, was it ever? McCarthy uses his art practice to challenge and disregard societal value systems, but to what end? His work production is a massive resource and cash‐hungry operation, but what is the value of it?

McCarthy is a self‐described “clown”who denies responsibility any effects of his art.[7] His subject matter is the body and his interest is porn / violence / rape / child abuse / incest. McCarthy’s work doesn’t exist inside of a bubble and any fan or supporter of his work has to ask: what does this perspective bring to the conversation? Generous readings of his work credit him with mediating on themes of guilt, repression and destruction while shining a torch on the patriarchy, and therefore weakening its grip. But where those readings come from I’m not sure as McCarthy’s actual statements on feminism, capitalism and oppression are far from enlightening. Particularly in recent times, in interviews he sidesteps core issues in favour of vague, surface‐level declarations on Hollywood, pop culture and parody. McCarthy’s depictions of violence aren’t victimless, they form part of the art world constituent of rape culture. And rape culture exists in uncomfortably close proximity to McCarthy’s own work: last year the porn star James Deen, one of the actors featured in Rebel Dabble Babble, is under investigation for accusations of rape by several female colleagues.

Gallery attendants are dotted through the Rebel Dabble Babble show, interminably immersed in McCarthy’s toxic sludge. After just one hour I’m feeling nauseous and am curious to learn how they cope with the waves of brutality. When I probe an attendant he tells me it was hard at first but it’s been three weeks since the show opened and he’s grown accustomed to the five hour shifts working in this room. His subdued and numbed demeanour mirrors my wearied response to McCarthy’s art. A vein of misogyny, as clear as the vein that runs along his very own penis, runs throughout McCarthy’s work. When leaving the exhibition that day in July I felt notably more heated, sticky and oppressed than I did upon entering the gallery.

[1] Paul McCarthy, ed. Ralph Rugoff et al (Phaidon, 1996) p. 33
[2] Paul McCarthy, Videos 1970 – 1997, ed. Yilmaz Dziewior (Kunstverein, 2003) p. 93
[3] https://observer.com/2013/05/pauls-uncanny-valley/
[4] Ibid.
[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth‐sobieski/for‐elyse‐elysepoppersth_b_3637273.html 
[6] Paul McCarthy, ed. Ralph Rugoff et al (Phaidon, 1996) p. 32
[7] Ibid., p. 134