California artist Paul McCarthy is known for his pioneering abject performances and sculptural dioramas of bourgeois depravity, like “Cultural Gothic” (1992), recently on view in the New Museum’s NYC 1993 exhibition. His giant inflatable “Balloon Dog” (2013) greeted visitors to this year’s Frieze art fair as they approached Randall’s Island by ferry. McCarthy has exhibitions of sculpture at both the 69th street and 18th street Hauser & Wirth spaces, with his video collaboration with son Damon McCarthy “Rebel Dabble Babble” showing at the downtown space. Outside the gallery on the waterfront is the massive bronze “Sisters” (2013), and his much anticipated work-in-progress “White Snow” (part installation, video, and performance), which will take over the Armory’s vast Drill Hall June 19 – August 4. In the midst of this crazed take-over of New York City, the artist sat down with Jarrett Earnest to discuss fluids, mold making and Disneyland.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): I want to begin by talking about the actual life casts in Life Cast at Hauser & Wirth, which are four hyper-realistic casts of Elyse Poppers, as That Girl, and a cast of you. I’m particularly interested in the relationship between the “insides” and “outsides” of sculptures. One of the things that is disturbing about life casts is they have everything on the outside that results from an anatomical structure but usually the inside is just some form of homogenized and hardened goo. You have done figures in the past with blood and food inside. What’s in the interior of the life casts?
Paul McCarthy: The sculptures are made of platinum silicone. They have a fiberglass core and an armature in the arms, hands, and legs. I have done rubber figures with muscles, blood vessels. The other type of interiors I’ve made are robotic. It’s getting to a point where I’m looking into having to make semi-realistic bone structures to make movement more realistic. I’m thinking about questions like, “What’s the cartilage mechanism in the throat? What’s in the rib cage when it’s breathing? How do we simulate swallowing and breathing?” One reason I might expose the interior is to show the robotics: to see the machine inside, which makes the illusion of the outside. The idea of making interiors is interesting. I’m also starting to ask, “How far can I take this type of realism?” We took the pieces downstairs as far as we could go, but if we started again we could go further.
Rail: What represents further?
McCarthy: It’s like peeling an onion. There are layers. The cast figures of Elyse Poppers and I are fairly realistic. But if you look carefully at them, our skin is not exactly right. I noticed the other day there are some very faint blood vessels on the side of Elyse’s head that we didn’t get. It’s another layer further.
Rail: Skin is not a surface as much as it has a depth to it; I feel that here you’ve replicated this complex sensation better than any figure I’ve seen.
McCarthy: The pieces of That Girl have been in my brain for quite a while, 10 years. I knew I wanted to make a life cast of a woman in two positions: lying flat and sitting up. And I knew I wanted to make a new one of myself in a horizontal position, without a beard, the beard being a type of mask. There was a real delay in finding someone to be That Girl, the subject, and someone who could help me fabricate the pieces. I wanted to work with people who understood the project and were interested in it, not just anybody that I would pay to do it. I found both people at the same time: Elyse Poppers and Kazuhiro Tsuji. The molding you see on the videotape in the room upstairs takes place over a week or more. There was one whole round of filming where we photographed and videotaped a series of movements of Elyse lying down and sitting up for an animatronic version. She sat in the middle of a room on a table. There were cameras at the edge of the room. She would move and then repeat the same motion with the cameras getting closer and closer and then changing position—a kind of crazy scrutiny, voyeurism. When we start the molding process, which was always done in the middle of the room, a group of men and women gathered around her. It resembled surgery, with the body on an operating table. The pouring of the blue rubber over her became a painting. We put the rubber in her mouth to cast her teeth and covered her head and face in rubber and plaster. It was a sculpture, an action. It was more than just the process of making a mold. You can read it like she’s on an altar, an image of torture, whatever. I think the piece sits in an ambiguous position as a sculpture. The process has multiple references and metaphors. For me it’s beautiful.
I’ve been interested in making molds for a long time. I did a piece called “Body Cave” in the late ’80s, early ’90s, which was one of the original life-cast molds. It’s a plaster cast from the knees to the upper stomach. You can view into the body cast through the leg openings or through the stomach opening. The innards of the body are not there. I have repeatedly done pieces about skins that contain a void, an emptiness. Molds are a form of empty representation of the missing body. They reference psychological states.
Rail: I think the videos of the molding are very beautiful and they reminded me of how much you use “fluids” in your performances. This molding process is interesting because it’s fluid and then solidifies. The same thing with the silicone cast bodies.
McCarthy: I used to say, “the liquid is the flux”: the piece didn’t start until the liquids were poured. That’s when the psychology opens up. The subconscious opens up with the liquids.
Rail: These are casts of bodies, but sculpture itself is something we understand on a bodily level. I’m interested in your sculptures as performances.
McCarthy: There are different sculptures being made, but nearly every object made is connected to performance or action in some way. Even the bronze piece in Hudson River Park, Sisters, before it became a sculpture, all that stuff on the platform is the residue of making the piece. I was dressed in a white protective suit wearing an air mask. I was a character. I was in a particular state of mind—pouring, chopping or kicking it, talking to it, slowly moving on it, peeing on it, whatever. A lot of those pieces are made that way, sometimes over a long period of time. “Sisters” was in the studio for two or three years. Some of the dwarf sculptures that became bronzes or rubber pieces were around for years. Pieces can be made a number of ways that reference activity or performances. The Life Casts have a performance element. During the casting, it’s a performance, a theater, a sculptural theater.
Rail: As objects they do demand a very particular type of attention.
McCarthy: There are three casts of Elyse sitting up: you enter the room and the same person is there three times in three different positions. A compression of time: three separate moments exist in one moment. I thought of it as a type of hallucination. She is also naked and is exposing her genitals by opening her legs: a confrontation in a public space, an alternative to normal. For a long time I couldn't find a way to present the figures. I didn’t know what to put them on, what to use as a base or a pedestal. Finally I put them on 1” thick glass on top of a white surface. She appears to slightly float. You can stand in the middle of the three of them. It is similar to upstairs where you stand in the middle of the video monitors, which references the original situation during molding and photographing where she was in the middle, surrounded by the fabricators and the cameras. The subject is surrounded during the process, then the role reverses and the subject surrounds the viewer.
Rail: But the sculpture of you is on a door.
McCarthy: It’s a different piece, “Horizontal” (2012). I made one before called “Paul Dreaming,”which had blood vessels and a skeleton structure. Beyond being a sculpture, it was made as a prosthetic. That life cast was made of me standing up. The gravity of standing up forms your body in a particular way—your stomach drops. The penis doesn’t fall flat against the body but arches out; skin and muscles all relax downward. The piece was in the studio for a long time and at one point I put a shirt and socks on it. Then because I didn’t want the back to flatten I laid it on a piece of foam on a cheap swimming pool lounge chair. I guess it was waiting for me to feel like I was okay with it. I exhibited it several times. It went to a show in Milan and it ended up rotting—it was made with tin silicone, not platinum. The piece began to discolor and it died, rotting away right in front of us. At that point I decided I would remake it again, which I did with platinum silicone. It was called “Paul Dreaming, Vertical, Horizontal,”meaning it was made vertically and laid horizontally. Like the bookends on 18th Street, which are identical carved composite sculptures that have two flat sides so they face each other with opposed orientations. I’ve done that several times; I’m always flipping things. Two years ago, I decided I wanted to make a new piece of me lying on a table without a beard, without glasses and no clothes. I would cast myself lying flat on my back. That is “Horizontal,” the piece that is in this show. It lies on a black door I've had for twenty years. I got it out of a high-rise building in downtown LA—it was a door in the executive office of Bank of America. I've dragged that door around forever, and when I went to position the piece. I laid it on the black door.
Rail: The life casts made so much more sense to me in connection with the “White Snow” images on 18th Street because the whole narrative of the Snow White fairytale is about this magical ambiguity between death and sleep. Will you explain the “White Snow” performance and video for me and how it relates to these objects: the glass, the coffin, etc.?
McCarthy: I think the four shows are all tied together—I see it as one piece in some ways. I originally was planning to just do That Girland “White Snow.” I was working on both of them when James Franco came along and wanted to know if my son Damon and I wanted to work on a piece with him that had to do with the story of Nicholas Ray making Rebel Without a Cause. There was supposedly an affair between Nicholas Ray and Natalie Wood and between Ray and Sal Mineo, and all of it took place in a bungalow in Chateau Marmont. He wanted me to play Ray. Damon and I weren’t sure whether to do it because we knew that Natalie Wood was almost a Snow White character. In a lot of ways it felt too close; there was a staircase bungalow like the flight of stairs in “White Snow,” where the trauma would go down. And the group of men around Natalie Wood—Ray, Dennis Hopper, James Dean, Sal Mineo—felt like the dwarves. But in the end we decided to do it and built the bungalow. We had done preliminary pieces before: we saw Rebel as a warm up to “White Snow.” We had an audition to find the Natalie Wood character. At first we considered a number of known actresses who probably would have taken the part because of James but Damon and I liked the process of an audition. During the auditions I interacted with each actress as Nick Ray, a creepy Nick Ray. I did a performance with each one of them to see how it would go. I knew there would be some actresses who were “known” who could have portrayed Natalie Wood, but this wasn’t going to be a traditional narrative film. It was going to unravel as a visceral, impromptu performance of some sort. James was interested in that; he wasn’t backing away or trying to construct a narrative. In the audition I was creepy and at some point with each one of them I start this laugh up close, uncomfortably close. I was looking for somebody that would respond in a way that I thought was interesting. Elyse was the one who responded by laughing and getting closer. We did Session 1 of “Rebel” with James, Elyse, Suzanne Averitt, who plays the mother, and Jay Yi who plays Sal. The action took place over three days. Then the set and video sat for a year. I knew it wasn’t finished. Session 2 began a year later with Elyse, myself, and stunt/porn doubles. The action took place over five to six days and then Damon and Nao edited the piece quickly. They edited 11 programs and we showed it at the Box Gallery in Los Angeles.
We had given up on “White Snow.” We didn’t know whether to build the set or if we should record in a real forest. At one point Hans Ulrich Obrist saw the model we made of the set and asked if I’d be interested in showing it at the Armory. I said, first of all it’s huge, just moving it across the country is a big deal. But I also told him, “the thing about this piece is I don’t know what will happen. It isn’t done. What happens in this performance can’t be censored, and the Armory can either take it or leave it. It could either be really fucked up or not, but I cannot promise you that there will be a piece at the end you will be comfortable exhibiting.” They agreed and we started making “White Snow,” building the big set. At one point I realized, “I’m Walt Disney.” Walt Disney/White Snow, Nicholas Ray/Natalie Wood—an interesting set of connections. The staircase in “White Snow” is based off the basement staircase of the house that I grew up in; my bedroom was in the basement. At one point it wasn’t about the Disney dwarf house, it was about my house. So the piece began to take on another layer. It wasn’t “Walt Disney” it was Walt Paul, and White Snow. “White Snow” uses Snow White to connect to culture; Snow White is a hook. There is a very loose narrative based on Snow White—Walt Paul, which is layered. I looked a little bit like Walt Disney with the prosthetic nose and the wig but I also look like other characters—like Hitler—but then underneath it’s Paul. And White Snow is the daughter, the person of desire, the child. The two pieces “White Snow” and “Rebel Dabble Babble” are related, they have direct connections. For Damon and I it’s fantastic to have the opportunity to exhibit them at the same time and for us to see them together.
Rail: Insofar as Snow White embodies That Girl or the object of desire, isn’t there a fair bit of identification on your part with her? Or does she never represent “you” or only ever “her”?
McCarthy: She becomes multiple layers of the “person of desire.” White Snow is my mother, White Snow is a daughter. White Snow is Karen, my wife. White Snow is Elyse. I play: the father; director; I’m the boy—I’m 13; White Snow is now my wife. These all become layered characters. At some point I’m my father. I pretend like I’m having a heart attack—my father had a heart attack. I’m talking to White Snow; my mother; my wife; it’s Elyse but it’s Karen. Walt says, “I’m really tired.” White Snow says, “We've got to get away. We should go to the desert.” And Walt says “I hate the fucking desert.” This is a layered improvisation, a conversation that is being played out, performed, and it’s a conversation that Karen and I would have, that Walt Disney would have. So the piece floats in and out of layers and references. This becomes a personal and cultural psychology. It’s strange how you put this nose on and become this character pretty quick. We’ve talked about switching roles. I become White Snow and she becomes Walt Paul. That will happen on the next go-around, we switch. I’ve said, “I think I could be White Snow. I think I could find something in it.”
Rail: Where is the wicked queen?
McCarthy: I never cared about the witch. But there is a Prince in "White Snow", he’s a paid stud. He has sex with a sculpture. We will see what happens the next time? The plan is to take the piece back and start again, and have it go on for another year or two and we’ll find out what the rest will be.
Rail: As a way of ending: In two weeks I’m going to Disneyland for the first time and I wondered if you had any advice. How would you do it?
McCarthy: I think I’d go to Tom Sawyer Island.
McCarthy: Everybody goes to Pirates of the Caribbean—fantastic! You go down into the grotto, into the subconscious. Then you can go straight to Snow White and then: It’s a Small World After All—fucking weird, it’s hell. The Matterhorn—fantastic, I was obsessed with the Matterhorn. Once I was asked what is my favorite work of art and I said, “The Raft of the Medusa” at the Louvre, and the second one is the Matterhorn at Disneyland. Sometimes they switch order! But Tom Sawyer Island, there is something strange going on there. Be careful.