'One of the most striking works in the current exhibition, (is) Paul McCarthy's sculpture Alpine Man ... where some see pornography, I see a liberating work of art - a testimony to the breadth of man's capacity for sexual feeling. Modern art can, in a very real sense, be a healing force in modern society.' (Peter Vibe in 'Letting it All Hang Out: A History of Erotic Art ' 1971, cited by Andrew Graham Dixon, in 'Condensed Controversy', The Independent, 15 Sept, 1992.)
Typically controversial, subversive and challenging, Paul McCarthy's Alpine Man is a contentious and brilliantly evocative work, first shown at the radical and groundbreaking exhibition Heidi: Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone held at the Galerie Krinzinger, in 1992. Depicting the moving mechanical model of a partially clothed old man in an alpine hat endlessly copulating with a large beer barrel, it is both a humorous and deliberately insightful work aimed at shocking the viewer into questioning their often habitually-formed, cultural and moral prejudices.
A fierce subversion of a familiar Alpine stereotype, it is one of the first mechanical installations that Paul McCarthy made in the early 1990s as part of a dramatic extension of his deliberately provocative, often performance-based, art into a new perverted Disneyland-style of work that sought to expose the manipulation of such cultural clichés by today's mass-media culture. Drawing on a stereotype from the Oktoberfest and depicting a Germanic man, literally loving his beer, Alpine Man not only humourously pokes fun at the unspoken assumption of everything Alpine being pure and wholesome, but it also renders a rather pathetic portrait of man as a mechanical slave to his passions. For, the endless and repetitive movement of the sex act - here rendered with all the crude simplicity of a cheap child's toy or whirligig - ultimately reveals this barrel-humping man to be a rather sad prisoner of his own obsessions - obsessions he has developed, it is suggested, within the rather narrow stereotypical culture in which he lives.
'Much of my work' McCarthy has said, 'is about the initiation from innocence to culture. Its generational, meaning that blame cannot be specific. It's passed down. Where does the perception or action come from? It becomes you. You are it. Culturalized into absurdity. I'm in it, too.' (Paul McCarthy quoted in Hunter Drochojowska-Philp The Mechanical Id, 2001, www.kunstwissen.de )
Famous for his performance work of the 1970s, McCarthy is part of an older generation of West Coast artists who got his first museum-level break at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York in the 1992 exhibition Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s. It was at this show that he premiered his first mechanical figures, replacing his own performance with those of automata in a vast and much-celebrated installation entitled The Garden. This work was a life-sized realistic-looking landscape made from tree-trunks that had previously been used for the set of the TV series Bonanza. Visible in amongst the strange realism of this TV forest were the figures of two partially-clothed men, mechanically humping a tree and a hole in the ground. An apparent exposure of the limited landscape of television, this work seemed to be a paean to both the perverting of nature and the nature of perversion.
This same year, McCarthy followed this work up with a celebrated collaboration with fellow Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley at the show entitled Heidi: Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone at the Galerie Krinzinger. Here, he deconstructed the distinctly Disney-like manipulation of the cultural stereotype of wholesomeness and Alpine purity as symbolized, in America, by Johanna Spyn's famous novel Heidi, by creating an installation where the young Swiss heroine 'Heidi' and her twisted grandfather, live out a perverted hillbilly-style existence. Housed in a cliché Disneyland-style Alpine chalet with an interior based paradoxically on the austere no-frills functional modernity of Adolf Loos' American Bar in Vienna, the four main characters of Spyn's novel, 'Heidi', 'Grandfather', 'Peter' and the 'Sick Child', all interact in a series of perverted encounters that establishes them as equally powerful icons of dysfunctional domesticity in modern-day America.
In addition, becoming increasingly interested with 'the idea of replacing myself with a mechanized object', McCarthy also included in this exhibition a mechanical whirligig of two Alpine robots drinking beer. But the most shocking, provocative and iconic single element of this exhibition was the mechanized installation, Alpine Man. This work, in which the object-obsession of his figures from The Garden was given a humorous and distinctly 'Austrian' twist, appeared to encapsulate the entire landscape of McCarthy's Heidi in one unusual, provocative and deliberately iconoclastic image. A traumatic image of McCarthy's concern over the 'culturization of innocence' similar to that of his other major mechanical sculpture of this period, Cultural Gothic - Alpine Man explores and exposes the sexual fetishising of consumerist objects in a dramatic, transgressive and very profound development of Pop Art.
Echoing the inverted sexualised machinery of Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia's 'erotomechanical' paintings where the desires of man became mechanised and the repetitive gyrations of machinery became sexualised, in this also overtly mechanical work, that a similar inversion has taken place. For, it is ultimately McCarthy's endlessly humping Alpine Man that has become objectified, while the inanimate object of his desire - the beer barrel - has become a fetishised and near magical focus of obsession and lust. Deeply aware of the manipulative influence consumerism has over our innermost dreams and desires, McCarthy, in this crude and humorous portrait of the extraordinary power that objects can gain over us, here presents what is ultimately a deeply unsettling image of man as a helpless and automaton-like slave to his beer.