There’s no more overblown or ambitious exhibition on anywhere at the moment. ‘The King, The Island, The Train, The House, The Ship’ is Paul McCarthy’s multi-venue takeover of Hauser & Wirth’s London galleries, rounded off by two more parts, ‘The Dwarves, The Forests’, in New York. Long regarded as the grandfather of performance art, this LA legend never knowingly does under-the-top, whether painting with his penis in 1974 or smearing ketchup and chocolate where the sun don’t shine in live-action happenings such as ‘Rocky’ (1976) or the ‘Santa Chocolate Shop’ (1997).
By employing film sets, hot-air inflatables and animatronics for recent museum-sized installations and outdoor sculptures, McCarthy is taking on the twin giants of Disney and Hollywood at their own games, albeit with his own uniquely iconoclastic and scatological cast of heroes and villains. The five London sections of this transatlantic show encompass pieces made over the last decade, as well as a new body of work about himself and his ironically lofty art-world reputation.
The central altar and focal point of this hydra-headed exhibition is to be found at the wood-panelled Piccadilly space, which McCarthy inaugurated as Hauser & Wirth’s first London gallery in 2003, when it ceased to be a bank. Viewers sit on pews at the foot of the artist-king, his highness cast in lifelike rubber, shorn of his clothes and ready for his close-up in a blonde Britney wig. Ms Spears is here too, in one of five giant, gratuitous photorealist paintings, doing her best ‘Basic Instinct’ impression from that infamous no-knickers night out with Paris Hilton. Despite some other explicit imagery, this brilliantly-staged secular congregation is not at all sexy, however, and neither is the vault’s video of McCarthy nearly dismembering his model’s member with a chainsaw (‘Cut Up King’) in a straight-faced torture scene worthy of ‘Reservoir Dogs’.
As in Tarantino’s gritty flick, the airbrushed artifice of cinema is one of McCarthy’s main targets here, with the ridiculously posed and painted athletic guy behind making a mockery of the realistic little leading man below. We’ll happily watch blockbuster films and absorb celebrity culture to worship people we don’t know pretending to be somebody else, just as we unthinkingly pay homage to artists we know we should like. So, McCarthy cleverly asks, who’s pretending to like whom in this unholy chapel and who is wearing the Emperor’s New Clothes?
Representing the artist’s studio as much as any intended theme-park likeness, ‘Pig Island’ is an unapologetic car crash of an installation – you just can’t look away. Viewers clamber up ladders to survey a morass of detritus, ranging from leftover art materials and shelving units to casts of butt-plugs, clay scrotums and the heavily hacked-up heads of Angelina Jolie and George W Bush – McCarthy’s favourite caricature. The island is partly a further image of the artist’s creative process set adrift in a sea of American pop culture that’s clearly going to hell in a KFC family bucket, with the pigs as symbols of debasement and the iconic faces mere masks to be butchered and reassembled ad nauseam.
The most horrific and hypnotic element in McCarthy’s menagerie is this mechanically sophisticated ménage a trois between two grimacing, thrusting Bush Juniors and assorted porcine porkees, the hydraulics doing the squealing for the poor, put-upon piglets. The disturbing naturalism of ‘Train’ – every facial tweak or snout muscle rendered faithfully – only enhances the dilemma of whether to laugh or cry at such an abomination. It’s truly a Pynchonesque vision of the American nightmare come hideously to life, if now somewhat dated by Bush’s fall from power as POTUS.
The least engaging of this wild bunch is a rapidly spinning room within a room, entitled ‘Mad House Jr’, in which a camera relays the experience of what it might be like to sit inside a larger version of this rotating cabinet-cum-ride. Besides being beyond your control, there seems little to merit this pointlessly stomach-lurching experiment besides McCarthy’s own punning musings in an accompanying drawing: ‘Dizzy Attraction’, ‘Disorientation’, ‘Dizzy Erection’.
A sooty frigate piloting nowhere looms out of the grass in nearby St James’s Square, its cannons at the ready to fire a mucky load of gelatinous tar over passersby. Peopled by misshapen versions of McCarthy’s familiar Pinocchio-nosed fuck-faces, this frigate can’t help but resemble a model drastically scaled up, although the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ pastiche is unmistakable.
While it’s disappointing that he feels the need to repeat himself, McCarthy is nothing if not an energetic sledgehammer of an artist, raining blows down on politics and pummelling pop culture until they bleed ketchup or finally haemorrhage something approaching a higher meaning. For sheer bravado, long live the king, I say, no matter his many flaws.