Still from Painter (1995) by Paul McCarthy

Paul McCarthy’s Body of Art – ‘comic and grotesque'

In the second highlight from our hotly anticipated book Body of Art, we look at Paul McCarthy’s Painter

In a few days’ time Phaidon and Artspace will begin bringing you a series of interviews with artists, curators, academics, institute directors and other prominent figures, all on and around the subject of our brilliant new book Body of Art. This title is the first to celebrate the beautiful and provocative ways artists have represented, scrutinised and utilised the body over the centuries. You can read an introduction to the book here to gain some insight into the themes they will be focusing on. 

However, before we start this main meal, we're going to whet your appetite with a few canapé-style extracts from the book. Yesterday we examined the George Condo work featured in Body of Art, Orgy Composition (2008). Today we’re looking at a piece by a US artist, which offers wholly different take on the human form: Paul McCarthy’s Painter.


Artist Paul McCarthy
Artist Paul McCarthy

'McCarthy’s video performances oscillate between the comic and the grotesque. Ketchup bottles stand in for blood in a low-budget show of violence. In his 1995 piece Painter, a perverse mimicry of a children’s art instruction television programme, McCarthy wore a blond wig, bulbous nose and swollen latex hands. Using brushes as tall as himself – used like oversized phalluses, pivoted against his crotch – he smeared paint and condiments on giant canvases. He was surrounded by even larger paint tubes labelled ‘RED’, ‘BLUE’, ‘BLACK’ and ‘SHIT’.

Pointing one finger of his cartoon glove out from under his smock to suggest a penis, he dipped its tip in red paint to simulate the glans. Later he hacked the penis-finger with a butcher’s knife for several minutes until finally pulling off the remains, all the while whimpering, then laughing, then staring in fascination. McCarthy uses this self-emasculation and the film’s gory splatter to parody art-world figures such as Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko (mentioned in the performance), reducing high art to scatological play, corporeally abject and puerile. This critique is pulled into sharp focus by the film’s conclusion, in which collectors with bulging noses sniff the artist’s bared rear end.’

Rest assured, that's as scatalogical as we're going to get with our previews. Check back tomorrow for some more beautiful bodies taken from Body of Art. You can also learn more about the book here, and pre-order your copy here.