Before entering Paul McCarthy’s latest exhibition at Hauser & Wirth I noticed a sign on the blacked out windows of the gallery warning of the explicit content within. As I have grown up living amongst the capitalism of the modern Western world I shrugged this off, safe in the knowledge that from a young age mass media culture has exposed me to such absurd realities that anything fictional could no longer affect me. When I was to leave the exhibition an hour or so later, the only words of reflection I could write were; ‘shocking to the point of anxiety.’
Although McCarthy’s ongoing appropriation of fairytales is incorporated in the title of this exhibition, WS being a twisted abbreviation of ‘Snow white’, there is little visual inclusion of these comforting symbols of childhood innocence here. Instead McCarthy frames these abject large-scale paintings, with adverts ripped straight from magazines. In ‘WS, Dolce & Gabbana’ a D&G perfume advert stares back at me from it’s lustful airbrushed mask whilst unknowingly being swamped by the down pour of ‘sexy’ feces coming from an obscene lewd act above.
All of the paintings have a strange feel of stagnant voyeurism about them; once past the blacked out windows viewers are exposed to multiple scenes of awkwardly absurd sex acts limply played out by warped figures against pastel backgrounds. Each depiction of niche fetishes is devoid of passion, the characters aren’t sad or happy, they are indifferent, detached but yet seemingly aware of their own bleakness. In contrast, the collaged images of Internet porn tease us with the guilt and disgust that comes with looking at such literal exploitation.
In ‘SC, Luncheon on the Grass’ a young woman stares straight ahead from an A4 print out centred at the top of the composition, upon her head is a festive Santa hat, yet her mouth is agape with the feces smeared across her cheeks. McCarthy parodies this anonymous girl into an ‘updated’ version of Manet’s ‘Déjeuner sur l’herbe’ where sexuality is no longer subtle and secret but crude and cruel, highlighting the state of human compassion in the structure of capitalism we live in today.
It’s not just consumer culture and famous paintings that are sexually parodied into McCarthy’s lurid paintings though. Hollywood celebrities native to McCarthy’s hometown of LA are also dotted around the exhibition, appropriated as embodiments of both fiction and reality amid these chaotic portraits, which imitate the blur of the virtual and literal in our technological society today.
Just as the Modernists revolted against the industrial revolution, here McCarthy revolts against the technological revolution. With his collective use of disturbing sexual imagery and the consumer porn of advertisements alongside the context of fairytales, McCarthy begins to build up a chronological narrative of how basic human instincts are affected by the uprising of technology. He points out that at a young age we learn morality from fictional characters in fairytales so that later on we can learn about sexuality from fictional relationships in porn. Ultimately this exhibition explores truths about the technological advance that we find ourselves in, and how obscenity has become our reality and will remain to be so for as long as our basic human instincts are exploited and manipulated by capitalist systems.