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Paul McCarthy presents George Bush and The Seven Dwarves

Disturbing yet humorous, the controversial artist's new shows in New York and London make compulsive viewing

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American artist Paul McCarthy’s 40-year career has resulted in a body of work which has consistently tested the resolve of gallery goers. Utah-born, now based in the foothills of Hollywood, he has built a reputation around his unstinting commitment to challenging traditional ideals such as the notion of the 'American dream' and popular/mass culture (Hollywood, Disneyland, television sitcoms) through a body of work which is often grotesque, violent, darkly humorous and highly controversial.

McCarthy's early performance work during the 1970s and 80s frequently involved the artist taking the starring role (often wearing a mask of some terrifying nature) and acting out sexually explicit acts using food stuffs as substitutes for bodily fluids. These works have historically involved the artist stuffing raw meat and cold cream into his mouth and filling his pants with ketchup, butter and tuna. To take one example: his 1974 performance work Hot Dog involved the artist first stripping to his underpants and shaving his body, before stuffing his penis into a hotdog bun and taping it in before he sat at a nearby table drinking ketchup stuffing his mouth with hot dogs. He then bound gauze around his head and taped closed his bulging mouth which protruded with sausages to the point where he struggled to prevent his own retching.

After comparisons of his work to the self-injuring artists of the Viennese Actionism movement of the 1960s, McCarthy said: "My work came out of kids' television in Los Angeles. People make reference to Viennese art without really questioning the fact that there is a big difference between ketchup and blood. I never thought of my work as shamanistic. My work is more about being a clown than a shaman." 

McCarthy's art has since encompassed drawings, photography, video and installation though his motivations have largely remained constant despite the variety of media in which he has worked. His latest sculptural shows, taking place in Hauser & Wirth galleries in New York (until December 17) and London (both the Savile Row and Piccadilly premises, until January 14) uphold the provocative reputation his work has gained over the years (flick through the gallery above to see the works on show in New York and London).

Continuing his ongoing fascination with Disneyland, The Dwarves, The Forests exhibition in New York presents a series of dystopic sculptures based on the story of Snow White and is a 3D progression of a series of drawings he first presented in 2009 under the title White Snow.

Under McCarthy's control, the characters of the innocent childhood fairy-tale turn from benign to malevolent, the seven dwarves presented as a disturbing army of terrifying, sexually grotesque creatures, with flaccid dangling phallus-like noses, erect penises and disfigured bodies.

The artist's fascination with aggression and mess is apparent from the dwarve's bodies which appear to have been grabbed and squeezed. Perhaps most disturbingly, their eyes have been violently gouged out. This is the result of McCarthy's unique two-part creation process which he has described as an initial building followed by a subsequent “fucking up”.

Performance is still never far from McCarthy's work and the New York show also exhibits two landscape maquettes made of clay, foam, wire and plaster which are the planning pieces for future stage-sets which will host performances on the Snow White theme (a full size set is already under construction in McCarthy’s LA studio).

A large, sprawling pile of detritus, seven years in the making, forms Pig Island - the focal point for his London show The King, The Island, The Train, The House, The Ship in Hauser & Wirth's Savile Row space. It began as a pile of rubbish in McCarthy's studio and has grown into a large chaotic pile of items, including Disney figures, cast body parts, fast food containers and caricatures of George Bush. The collection gives the viewer a sense of the ongoing cumulative nature of his artistic practice.

Caricatures of George W. Bush make another appearance in the same same Savile row space, this time as a mechanised pot-bellied twin pair, which rhythmically sodomise pigs who periodically swivel their heads and follow gallery visitors around the space with their eyes.

Visitors to the Piccadilly exhibition (also called The King, The Island, The Train, The House, The Ship) will be invited to sit on church pews and look up at a silicone model of the naked artist wearing only a blonde wig which sits on a throne on an elevated platform. The figure of the artist looks out over his 'congregation.' The piece invites us to contemplate the position of the artist as a sort of ‘higher being.’

It wasn’t until 1990 that McCarthy sold his first work after 20 years of producing art. He is now  considered one of the most influential and fearless artists of the past half century (his work has been exhibited in Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid) and has influenced a younger generation of similarly confrontational artists, including the likes of Nathaniel Mellors and the Chapman Brothers.

Paul McCarthy's works (including Hot Dog) are featured in Defining Contemporary Art, which tells the story of art over the last 25 years through just 200 pivotal artworks.

His New York show The Dwarves, The Forests continues until December 17, while his London shows both entitled The King, The Island, The Train, The House The Ship open tomorrow and run until January 14 2012.


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