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Painter 1995 is a single-channel colour video with sound that is shown in a darkened room either as a projection or on a monitor. The video depicts the American artist Paul McCarthy performing as the eponymous painter inside a wooden set that is dressed as an artist’s studio, containing several large canvases as well as over-sized brushes and tubes of paint, along with an adjacent bedroom. Dressed in a blue smock, McCarthy wears a blonde wig and a number of prosthetics, including a bulbous nose, flapping ears and large rubber hands. During the fifty-minute video, he talks and acts in an exaggerated and comic fashion, sometimes behaving violently and at other times more childlike, as he struggles to paint. Midway through the work McCarthy sits at a table and repeatedly hits his rubber hand with a meat cleaver, eventually cutting off the index finger. Interspersed with the sequences in the studio and bedroom are four brief scenes featuring additional characters, all of whom also wear bulbous prosthetic noses. Two of these scenes are set in an office, where McCarthy visits a female gallery owner whom he claims owes him money, and the other two are based around a talk show, in which McCarthy appears alongside the host and an art collector couple. The video concludes with a scene in which a group of collectors line up to see McCarthy, with one sniffing the artist’s bare bottom as if assessing it as an artwork. Painter was shot on digital betacam and is displayed as standard definition video. The version owned by Tate is number four in an edition of ten plus two artist’s proofs.
This video was made in California, where McCarthy lives and works, on a soundstage in Hollywood. In an interview with the art historian Kristine Stiles published in 1996, McCarthy explained the significance of the sets, spaces and furniture he employs in his work:
I seem to have a strong interest in placing the action in architecture and in using furniture: rooms connected to rooms, doors, windows and hallways. The house itself and the action of going in and out of its rooms. I always use tables; tables being a pedestal, something for me to stand on where I become figurative sculpture. The table is also a kind of altar, a place for food preparation. I think it has to do with the search for a very basic kind of activity.
(Quoted in Rugoff, Stiles and Di Pietrantonio 1996, p.14.)
Although Painter satirises broader aspects of the art world, such as the role of collectors and dealers, its main focus is on the notion of the heroic artist, with McCarthy’s character more reminiscent, in both appearance and behaviour, of a clown than a creative genius. At one point in the video he spins around chanting ‘de Kooning’ – a reference to Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), the Dutch-American artist who was a key figure in abstract expressionism, the movement that emerged in New York in the late 1940s and which has often been associated with a performative and intellectual approach to painting. In Painter McCarthy appears as a shambolic and career-minded artist, who performs strange rituals (such as mixing mayonnaise and ketchup with his paint) while remaining deeply concerned with money and status. In a further nod to perceptions of artistic behaviour, the way in which McCarthy violently cuts off his rubber finger may be an allusion to Vincent van Gogh’s (1853–1890) famous amputation of his own ear, as the art historian Jennie Klein argued in 2001 (Jennie Klein, ‘Paul McCarthy: Rites of Masculinity’, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, vol.23, no.2, May 2001, p.16).
McCarthy’s work has frequently explored repetition, bodily functions, black comedy and the grotesque. He initially trained as a painter at the University of Utah (1966–8) and the San Francisco Art Institute (1968–9), during which time he started giving performances, before beginning to make videos in 1970 while studying at the University of Southern California (where he completed a Masters in Fine Arts in 1973). Videos such as Whipping a Wall with Paint 1974 (Museum of Modern Art, Vienna) and Sailor’s Meat (Sailor’s Delight) 1975 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) document McCarthy’s physically demanding performances, often involving food. He ceased giving live performances in 1983, but his exploration of role-playing continued in set-based video works such as Bossy Burger 1991 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Painter.
McCarthy’s practice has also included drawings, sculptures, photographs and room-sized installations. From the 1990s onwards, it has increasingly involved large-scale sculptural works made from fiberglass and silicone that reference consumer products and popular culture (see, for instance, Spaghetti Man 1993 and Apple Heads on Swiss Cheese 1997–9). Since the early 2000s he has produced a number of giant inflatable sculptures on sexual, scatological or food-based themes, such as Daddies Tomato Ketchup 2007 and Complex Pile 2013.
Ralph Rugoff, Kristine Stiles and Giacinto Di Pietrantonio, Paul McCarthy, London 1996, pp.13–14, 66, reproduced pp.6, 10–13.
Eva Meyer-Hermann (ed.), Paul McCarthy: Brain Box Dream Box, exhibition catalogue, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven 2004, pp.140–3, reproduced p.140.
Paul McCarthy: Head Shot / Shop Head: Works 1966–2006, exhibition catalogue, Moderna Museet, Stockholm 2006, pp.11, 21, 44–5, reproduced pp.416–21.
Supported by Christie’s.