“[T]he right use of comedy will, I think, by nobody be blamed, and much less of the high and excellent tragedy, that openeth the greatest wounds, and showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue; that maketh kings fear to be tyrants, and tyrants manifest their tyrannical humors; that with stirring the effects of admiration and commiseration teacheth the uncertainty of this world, and upon how weak foundations gilden roofs are builded.” Sir Philip Sidney
“I can see much more clearly now that we are living in the middle of this kind of insanity, and it runs itself. And the really scary thing is that we’re not conscious of it anymore. It’s a kind of fascism. The end goal of this kind of capitalism is to erase difference, to eradicate cultures, to turn us all into a form of cyborg, people who all want the same thing.” Paul McCarthy
Tripod is a monstrous and fascinating apparition. A lurid assemblage of pirate and Santa Claus lurches from a three-legged framework of multi-colored forms: reaching over a crudely genital orange appendage, a red hand gropes for what looks like the barrel of a gun; two rough-hewn pink heads face away from one another behind the buccaneer’s tricorn hat; inchoate legs and feet dissolve into red magma at the statue’s base. Tumorous biomechanic shapes project from this strange hybrid’s face and limbs at odd angles, threatening to mutate the whole into amorphous chaos. Paul McCarthy deconstructs the body of rampant late-stage capitalism, letting the sublimated drives of libido and violence that course beneath its surface run free. The saccharine icons of Disneyfied America are made abject and grotesque: Santa Claus and Popeye are pressed into the service of a perverse American Gothic through which McCarthy confronts us with our own self-destructive state. This violently colorful freak show debunks the promises of the American Dream, exposing the spiritual void that follows material plenty. McCarthy translates the corporate into the corporeal, and for all its puerile humor the chimera he creates is a profound reflection of the viewer as subject to the vicious forces of consumerist society.
The work’s wildly diverse elements take cues from the iconic video and performance works that McCarthy began in the seventies; his carnal, messy and often dangerous acts in works such as Painting, Wall Whip (1974), Sailor’s Meat (1975) and Class Fool (1976)—making shocking use of bodily fluids, self-mutilation, ketchup, chocolate, mayonnaise and raw meat—aimed both to peel back the fairytale veneer of postwar prosperity and to dethrone the revered figure of the artist. The different hats and masks in Tripod act out a similar warped roleplay to McCarthy in his performances, exploring a compound, caricatured identity through the signifiers of costume. The pink Siamese heads look away from one another in broken communication, while the lumpy growths make queasy reference to bodily waste; the doubly sacred and commoditised figure of Santa Claus is made into a leering pervert with a phallic gun, his red hat drooping. Discussing his recent work, McCarthy has said “I can see much more clearly now that we are living in the middle of this kind of insanity, and it runs itself. And the really scary thing is that we’re not conscious of it anymore. It’s a kind of fascism. The end goal of this kind of capitalism is to erase difference, to eradicate cultures, to turn us all into a form of cyborg, people who all want the same thing” (P. McCarthy, quoted in R. Kennedy, “The Demented Imagineer,” New York Times, 10 May 2012). It is something like this cyborg gone wrong that he presents us with in Tripod: wanderer of a cultural wasteland, base and slavish desires chewed up and spat out by the broken machine of glossy consumerist allure.
His works growing in scale and prominence since the nineties, it is precisely through such disorder and delirium that McCarthy encourages us to look beneath the surface of our surroundings. The smoothness and polish of corporate appeal is illusory and repressive. Through his darkly funny use of cartoon characters like Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland and Snow White, he often takes Disney as emblematic of this constructed reality—a seemingly perfect world created by a ruthlessly efficient right-wing capitalist. “Disney has something to do with the future,” McCarthy has said. “It’s a virtual space, not unlike the Acropolis. The Disney characters, the environment, the aesthetic are so refined, the relationships so perfect. It’s the invention of a world. A Shangri-La that is directly connected to a political agenda, a type of prison that you are seduced into visiting” (P. McCarthy, quoted in B. Weissman, “Paul McCarthy,” BOMB Magazine 84, Summer 2003). We are so used to this prison that we no longer sees its walls; in the explosive, garish thrill-ride of his sculpture McCarthy encourages us to break out, to acknowledge the carnival of lusts, obsessions, failures and horror within ourselves and those who govern our world, to see behind the scenes of the slick theme park.
Bringing together the motifs of his performances and his sculpture, McCarthy says that “there’s an evolution of thinking, but they still deal with cultural conditioning and repression, or desire, and in Freudian terms some sort of id that has always been in the work. And there’s always been the attempt of culture to put a cap on it, and it’s that—that struggle and that relationship to culture and conditioning, and then its manifestation in tyranny or trauma or brutality—that is part of the work. Always has been. And then that relationship to some sort of skin of normality and its relationship to the corporate, and the drive of the corporate, and the drive for power, and power over others and its relationship to the repressed drive. I think it’s all part of my work, and visible, and it exists in these pieces” (P. McCarthy, quoted in M. Rappolt, “Paul McCarthy,” ArtReview, September 2015). More importantly, we can identify this tumult within ourselves: as outlandish and orgiastic as Tripod appears, this contemporary demon exhibits a riotous, disconcerting truth.