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See LA BELLA E LA BESTIA. PAUL MCCARTHY’S ARTWORKS, a conference on the occasion of McCarthy’s exhibition, Milan June 2010
Pig Island – L’isola dei porci is the first major exhibition in Italy by Paul McCarthy, a legendary American artist who over his long career has played a key role in the history of contemporary art.
Specially conceived for the monumental underground spaces of Palazzo Citterio, Pig Island brings together historic works, videos, and an extraordinary new installation making its world debut. A giant “total artwork”, the exhibition makes Palazzo Citterio come to life with McCarthy’s dreams and visions. Installed in a unique example of 18th-century architecture which was transformed in the ’80s, with the creation of an underground level, but has remained closed for over 25 years, Pig Island – L’isola dei porci combines the artist’s Rabelaisian works with the rawness of these unfinished spaces, immersing visitors in an enormous three-dimensional collage. Mingling Pop Art with performance, Minimalism with Walt Disney, McCarthy has invented a unique language that has been celebrated by prestigious museums around the world, such as Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the Whitney Museum in New York. Since the late ’60s, Paul McCarthy has been creating installations, sculptures and videos that explore the dark side of the American dream. Pirates, clowns, Santa Claus figures, ketchup containers, home-made avatars, guys and dolls, pigs and bottles of whisky are the toys that people McCarthy’s hypertrophic world; his exhibitions are conceived like giant theme parks that stage raving bacchanals and subtle parodies of TV serials, with various disguises that graft the commedia dell’arte tradition onto American soap operas. Like a circus ringmaster, McCarthy presents shows attended by mutant monsters and impersonations of celebrities, ranging from Alice in Wonderland to George Bush, Angelina Jolie to the Seven Dwarves.
Pig Island – L’isola dei porci brings McCarthy’s ferociously burlesque world to Milan: upon entering the show, visitors are plunged into surreal political satire with Static (Pink) (2004-2009), a pink silicone mask caught in a moment of sneering lasciviousness. In McCarthy’s universe, all hierarchies are turned on their heads: like Orwell’s Animal Farm, politics become a grotesque comedy where animals and human beings trade their roles, and chaos reigns supreme. Filmed in collaboration with his son Damon, in a production that rivals the most impressive cinematic extravaganzas, Pirate Party (2005) and Houseboat Party (2005) and F-Fort Party (2005) were created in endless performance sessions within spaces that blend amusement-park aesthetics with DYI architecture. Again, as in a Mardi Gras, the natural order of things is turned upside-down. Forts out of second-rate Westerns and ships out of Pirates of the Caribbean are peopled by characters from an adult Disneyland, who wage bizarre, frenzied battles. With wild gestures and raucous laughter, these pirates and soldiers throw themselves into violent, crass, completely unmotivated escapades, as if Viennese Actionism had encountered the fiction and glamour of Hollywood: quarts of ketchup and chocolate syrup gush from the stumps of severed arms and legs, in the surging rhythm of a fairy tale without a plot or a happy ending. In the next room, the galleon in Black Bow Bilbao (2001-2005) looks like some kind of portable theme park, the model for a set that was never built.
The Fondazione Nicola Trussardi exhibition is also an opportunity to rediscover some of Paul McCarthy’s earliest sculptures, in which the artist delves into the human body, its organs, and its flesh, in works that seem to adopt the chilliest language of Minimalism while infusing it with new urges and desires. In Chair with Butt Plug (1978), a chair—an object that is a recurring theme in art history, from Van Gogh to conceptual art—becomes a tool for exploring sexuality and presenting a bewildering new vision of the world of objects. In Ketchup Sandwich (1970), Paul McCarthy constructs a perfect cube out of glass plates that are slathered with the symbol of the American junk diet. Playing on its evocations of fast food and cheap special effects, ketchup—which in McCarthy’s world also represents a bodily fluid—also becomes a gigantic monument to be adored, a parade float, over 15 meters high, that looms above the outdoor courtyard of Palazzo Citterio in Daddies Tomato Ketchup Inflatable (2007). All the icons and symbols of today’s world crumble at the hands of McCarthy, who wields the tools of parody to expose their pettiness and hypocrisy: as in Paula Jones (2010) which mixes voyeurism and desire.
For the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi show, Paul McCarthy introduces the public to one of his most complex and ambitious works, presented here in its world debut. Pig Island (2003-2010) is an enormous accumulation of clay, metal, Styrofoam, wood, plastic, and every other possible sculptural material, forming a contemporary version of a Merzbau by Kurt Schwitters. After 7 years of growth in the artist’s studio, Pig Island fills over 100 square meters with a surreal anthology of the themes that have animated McCarthy’s career through the years. It was shipped to Milan from Los Angeles with meticulous attention, transporting every miniature scrap of plastic, every object and piece of rubbish that the artist collected in his gigantic sculpture. Displayed in this bunker dug out under the city, Pig Island turns into a giant archeological artifact; McCarthy’s masterpiece is a treasure island in reverse, where buccaneers and damsels throw themselves with abandon into wild revels, in yet another shipwreck of hope.Pig Island is a Raft of the Medusa whose characters can finally castoff their inhibitions and reveal their all-too-human nature. Like therest of the exhibition, the sculpture is swarming with dreams and nightmares; it is a journey through the subconscious of our society, amid Eros and taboos, junk piles and jujus.
Last but not least, in one of the dark chambers of Palazzo Citterio, we encounter the sinister sculpture Dreaming (2005): Paul McCarthy portrays himself naked—dreaming, or perhaps dead—in a hyperrealistic sculpture that transforms him into a mannequin, or perhaps an idol demanding worship.