Paul McCarthy's Parody of Paradise At Whitechapel Art Gallery

By James Dixon Published: 31 October 2005

Shows a photo of a man in a bloodied costume wearing an oversized cutlass and with a made-up bulbous nose and large ears

Caribbean Pirates, 2001-2005, in collaboration with Damon McCarthy Performance.Photograph, Pirate Party, 2005. © Paul McCarthy, 2005

James Dixon headed to east London to take in this exhibition that 24 Hour Museum readers should note contains some material that may not be suitable for children.

La La Land Parody Paradise is the most comprehensive exhibition yet of works by the American performance artist and sculptor Paul McCarthy. It runs at the Whitechapel Gallery in London until January 8 2006.

McCarthy has a reputation for boundary pushing and his work is characterised by giant heads, graphic sexual images, degradation and mess. All feature strongly in this collection, as does a prevalent pirate theme.

The exhibition’s literature describes the pirate theme (taken from the Disneyland ride Pirates of the Caribbean) as a metaphor for US invasion and occupation of foreign lands. This may be so, but a stronger theme of the show is that of an extreme representation of a street carnival.

Shows a photo of a man with theatrical make-up giving him an enormous stomach sitting on a blood stained table

Caribbean Pirates, 2001-2005, in collaboration with Damon McCarthy Performance.Photograph, Pirate Party, 2005. © Paul McCarthy, 2005

Traditionally, carnival is all about a reversal of real-world roles, signified by McCarthy in his reversed images of popular 1970s magazine and poster adverts. In McCarthy’s carnival, the reversed world runs amok in a frenzy of amputation, defecation and degrading sexual encounters.

Grotesque oversized carnival heads sit next to a life-size waxwork of the artist asleep and a fully working model of a dreaming pig.

The exhibition is spread over two locations. At the Whitechapel Gallery the main room is predominantly pirate themed and contains both drawn art and sculpture. The upstairs room is photograph and sculpture based and includes one piece, Captain Morgan Poopdeck, that seems to bring the many themes of the exhibition together.

Downstairs in the main gallery a number of McCarthy’s videos are also shown, including one of a bulbous nosed artist’s efforts to produce modern art.

Shows a photo of a man with a made-up bulbous nose carrying a figure in a white dress

Caribbean Pirates, 2001-2005, in collaboration with Damon McCarthy Performance.Photograph, Pirate Party, 2005. © Paul McCarthy, 2005

A short walk away down Cheshire Street, off Brick Lane, a warehouse also holds some of the now actorless sets of Caribbean Pirates, a video-based installation dealing with brutality and sexual depravity and produced in collaboration with McCarthy’s son Damon.

Upstairs is my favourite, and most disturbing, piece. Surreal pieces of film are projected onto the walls of the seemingly recently vacated and run down rooms, accompanied by a suitably haunting sound recording.

I must say, I like Paul McCarthy. I like all his video art and of his other pieces, there are a great number that together make sense of an essentially senseless subject. Like any great album or play, this is so good (and satisfying) because it all works together as a whole, with the warehouse full of empty, used sets and projected violence making for a more than suitable resolution after the rush of activity in the first gallery.

It is worth taking a long time over this exhibition and if you let yourself get sucked into McCarthy’s world a little it suddenly seems to make a great deal of sense.

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