I don't know if the adjectives "loud" and "visually spare" usually come to mind when you think of Paul McCarthy, but after seeing Low Life Slow Life: Part 2 at the Wattis this month, I'm stuck with them. The exhibit is not of McCarthy's works, but rather of works chosen by McCarthy in relation to his "memories of his own career." Part 1, which showed last year at the Wattis, focused on work from his undergraduate and graduate days, while Part 2, which is on view until May 30, 2008, showcases works from the 1970s through the present.
It's a small show, both in terms of the number of pieces (about 12) and the number of artists (about 7). And thank god for small favors, because it's not an easy show. By this I mean that while many pieces involve humor, most require something from you other than pleasure in reception, which can make the overall experience challenging, not to mention demanding and even disagreeable.
I find it interesting that the show literature refuses to assign the phrase "influences" to McCarthy's selections; rather, the brochure stresses that McCarthy's choices are based on personal "recollections." I think this might be Artspeak for "Warning: this exhibit contains neither explanatory text nor an explicit, chronological flowchart of how the works included relate to McCarthy's bigger project." The guest is left to the mercy of the pieces, which is fine by me, although I have to say that most of the pieces do get more interesting after a little additional research. I highly recommend everyone look into Howard Fried's filming techniques for Sea Sell.
For me, the sweet spot of the exhibit happens directly after entering the first gallery, as your attention bounces between a giant, worried-looking Maria Lassnig self-portrait ("Doubts," 2004) that uses chartreuse in its color palette; a series of large, altered photographs of Disneyland, focusing on social spectacle and the Matterhorn; and a video piece by Guy Debord (We Spin Around the Night and Are Consumed by Fire, 1978) that juxtaposes images of commodities, consumption, politics and affluence with Debord's narration. Body, spectacle, performance, excess and mess: everything I know or need to know about McCarthy's aesthetic and interests is present in this corner, and I like the juxtaposed delivery style.
Wedded to this is Howard Fried's video, Sea Sell Sea Sick at Saw Sea Soar, Sea (1971), the soundtrack of which dominates the first gallery -- "You don't want tomato juice, you don't want chicken salad..." -- only to be replaced by the soundtrack to Dennis Oppenheim's Wishing Well (1973/2009) in the second. "Sink back. Sink. Sink back down.". I found the second gallery less interesting, although it might have been because the piece that takes up the most physical space (Fried's All My Dirty Blue Clothes) is a performance shell: debris no longer activated by a human body.
McCarthy's scrapbooking is at its best when the viewer can move with it in time and understand how the pieces activate each other, instead of looking at object-like remains of actions that have already happened. For the same reason, I would say that even if you decide to skip the exhibit, you should definitely look into the film screenings that McCarthy has selected. For the next two months, there will be showings of works by the likes of Michael Snow, Valie Export, Bruce Nauman and Kurt Kren, amongst others.
Paul McCarthy's Low Life Slow Life, Part 2 is at CCA's Wattis Institute through May 30, 2008.