Trite Paul McCarthy, at the New Museum

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The cover of last week's New Yorker could hardly have summed things up better. That theater billboard proclaiming its wares at a smiling, streaming audience. "Lurid!" screams one sign. "Gratuitously Prurient!" yells another. "A New Low!" promises a third. Veiled commentary on rising attendance following the recent controversy at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, but the magazine might just as well have been talking about the current exhibition at Soho's New Museum, a retrospective of the work of Paul McCarthy.

The exhibition mostly features simulations of self-mutilation, castration, defecation, dismemberment, vomiting, suffocation and bestiality, among other activities. Bluntly amateurish in presentation, terrifically infantile in content, unendurably rambling and, worse yet, totally unfunny?something of a shock when one considers the artist's undeserved reputation as a funnyman?McCarthy's 30-year survey is precisely the kind of event that the art world, in its kneejerk, frivolous embrace of all things marginal and inchoate, loves to love to love.

Like much political art of the last two decades, McCarthy's work trades on the kind of moralizing that enrages Mississippi preachers and North Carolina senators and leaves certain paranoid-liberal folks feeling inarticulate if peculiarly self-satisfied. McCarthy, a latecomer to art world popularity, was smart to avoid the controversy, conservative backlash and subsequent oblivion that engulfed the culture warriors of the 80s and 90s. Ensconced in Southern California, his work cultivated underground cult status during that time, partly in response to his faux-psychotic performances and videos, partly thanks to his tenure at UCLA's influential art school.

McCarthy was inspired early on by the Action Art and Body Art that followed Action Painting?work that, like Pollock's, recorded the painter's encounter with the canvas?and made known his reaction to Abstract Expressionism's canonization of creativity through a series of nonsensical, putatively purgative performances. These included tossing a bowling ball down a hill (Mountain Bowling, 1969), painting the floor with his face (Face Painting?Floor, White Line, 1972), plastering his head and arm into a wall (Plaster Your Head and One Arm into a Wall, 1973) and displaying his hairy ass to a video camera (Mooning, 1973).

Tied into other self-abusing shenanigans?like the work of Chris Burden (who had himself shot in the arm), the actions of Gina Pane (who systematically cut herself with razor blades) and the performances of Carolee Schneeman (who publicly read from texts secreted inside her vagina)?McCarthy humbly established himself as something of a rogue-saint, a "semimystical figure," in the words of New Museum senior curator Dan Cameron, "compelled to explore meanings and forms ignored or drastically simplified by society."

McCarthy developed a repetitive, abject language with which to trot out a tried, politically correct reversal of Freudian pseudoscience, intimately connected to other kooky period phenomena like Reichian psychology, primal scream therapy and the asinine, naive equation of the personal with the political. He located, with blinding originality, the culture's core problems in "bourgeois patriarchy" and "social repression," and embarked on a series of graphic performances meant to expunge America of its protracted illness by means of a ritualized theatrical vaccine.

Identifying the notion of sublimation?the channeling of instinctual desire from primitive expression to socially acceptable behavior?as the enemy, McCarthy's actions symbolically loosed the Freudian id from the fetters of the ego and superego. Sweaty, hysterical performances followed, cast supposedly as exorcisms of a body politic collectively trussed up by "the prohibitory apparatus of culture." He wishfully reinvented America as a nation of John Wayne Gacys instead of John Waynes; and projected an equally twisted mirror image of Jesse Helms country. A male version of Karen Finley (who, like McCarthy, also covered herself in some foodstuffs and put others up her rectum), the California artist saw a terminally closeted America where Republicans eyeballed the Second Amendment, full of "repression, guilt, sex, and shit," where only a dwindling few invoked the nation's most sanitized myths.

Performances and video installations with names like "Meatcake" (the artist eats raw hamburger meat), "Hot Dog" (the artist eats and spews hotdogs) and "Heinz Ketchup Sauce" (the artist eats and spews Heinz Ketchup Sauce) made of America's 1950s Leave It to Beaver cuisine a working palette for McCarthy's formless oral activity. Splattering fluids like mayonnaise and ketchup while covering and violating himself with prepackaged food, McCarthy sought, at least in stated purpose, not only to expose the psychic underbelly of America but also to debunk the false idealism built into entertainment culture.

A 1991 performance and installation, Bossy Burger, still passes in McCarthyite circles for "breakthrough" material. Placed inside a set constructed from castoffs of the tv sitcom Family Affair, a white-suited, chef-hatted McCarthy shows up for the taping of a cooking show wearing an Alfred E. Neuman mask. He screams and flails violently for hours, covering everything in liquid muck, enacting a rampant buffoonery that is to real weirdness as a Hari Krishna airport dance is to Philippine crucifixions. Less postmodern derangement of the senses than a monitor stuck on a pointless hour of public access cable, McCarthy's shtick pales next to both the factual and fictional horrors enacted hourly on tv, film and computer screens across the world.

So why is Paul McCarthy so revered within certain art world confines? The following quote goes a long way to making this clear: "McCarthy shows both the family and the media as intertwined twin tyrannies in American culture, wreaking their own particular violence through social conditioning." This astoundingly daft, myopic statement, written by New Museum director Lisa Phillips for the exhibition catalog, provides broad access into the kind of dated, rote rationale that sanctions the work of out-of-touch museums like the New and out-of-date artists like Paul McCarthy. Thoroughly incorporated into the normative culture McCarthy so abhors in the form of horror flicks and South Park episodes, shock and trauma can no longer be, if they ever were, regenerative triggers for a "radical desublimation." Without it, McCarthy's work descends into the theatrical equivalent of poop jokes; just the thing that still fires prudish curators and critics stuck, like broken records, on tinny, issue-oriented, multiculturalism.

"Paul McCarthy," through May 13 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 583 Broadway (betw. Houston & Prince Sts.), 219-1222.

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