Santas Little Helper

Over the past four decades, Paul McCarthy's work has gone from intimate performance videos to spectacular public sculptures — all without sacrificing its unnerving psychosexual tone. While the artist's recent show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York surprised many with its unornamented structuralism, its restraint was comically upstaged by the unmooring of his giant inflatable dog turd at Switzerland's Zentrum Paul Klee, which left a trail of downed power lines in its wake. It was as if McCarthy's art had unleashed on the Swiss countryside the cartoonish extravagance that had been put on the back burner for the Whitney.

Not that McCarthy hasn't paid tribute to the twisted pop-mythological deities of the American psyche. "I'm interested in caricatures — from Miss Piggy to Popeye to Santa Claus — that are cultural fabrications," observes the 63-year-old artist from his LA home. "Santa is one that I've hung on to longer, that I repeat more. There's the whole thing of Christmas and consumption and commodity, and its relationship to capitalism and Western culture and Americana. The character itself is this roly-poly patriarch with a beard — almost a godlike figure." In fact, he notes, one of his earliest childhood drawings is of Santa Claus.

The old elf has surfaced often in McCarthy's oeuvre, from the outrageous fecal-smearing bacchanalia of the mid-'90s Tokyo Santa (1996) and Santa Chocolate Shop (1997), to an entire series of recent sculptural works based on a Santa figure holding aloft a tree-like butt plug. This latter series culminated in Chocolate Santa (2007), McCarthy's warped take on entrepreneurship in the form of a fully functioning "Chocolate Santa with Butt Plug" factory, churning out $100 gift boxes at a rate of 1,000 a day in New York's Maccarone Gallery.

"I did the whole thing in two months," recalls McCarthy with disbelief. After refitting the gallery so that it passed the Board of Health, he made the mold, found a chocolatier, set up a company, and found people who "knew how to make this stuff." Then, he says, "I hired an ad agency and put ads in Vanity Fair and other magazines." McCarthy laughs. "It looked like success, but I always thought it would be a company that would fail financially — and it did. There was this thing in Artforum about how much money I was going to make and how I had sold out. They calculated that I was going to sell 30,000." He ended up selling around 1,600. "I have about 12,000 in storage, packed in shredded Artforums."

Around the same time, McCarthy turned his venture-capital attention to an even larger yuletide commercial failure. "Last year I tried to buy a Santa's Village by Lake Arrowhead," he says. The dilapidated village — part of a '50s-era franchise of Santa theme parks in California and Chicago — opened in the mountains just outside LA in 1955, six weeks before nearby Disneyland opened its doors. "I was planning on just treating it as a sculpture," McCarthy says. "I had plans for making films there, then operating parts of it." Although he did sneak in to take photographs, the project was never realized.

"I was in negotiation for almost three months. At one point it was $6 million. I probably could have sold off enough of the property to pay for it, while keeping the village separate," the artist says. "But then they said, '$12 million.' So I found an abandoned RV park up in the mountains, and I'm building stuff up there." A planned labyrinth of interlocking windowless, prisonlike structures (currently navigating the equally mazelike zoning laws) disguised with old saloon facades, McCarthy's substitute sculptural environment has an institutionalized Wild West theme — but may intersect with the Santa Claus vector in the future. "I own the whole chocolate factory — the equipment, the molds. I think next year I'll start it up again. Ultimately, I'd like to buy a house in LA and paint it red and green and run the factory for 10 years. Or maybe it could end up in the RV park."

When God shuts a door, McCarthy makes a building with no windows. Here's where the abject aesthetic and the true meaning of Christmas intersect: McCarthy stays close to the inexhaustible ground of creativity by accepting, even embracing, the one truly reliable strategy: failure. It's the gift that keeps on giving.

"Low Life Slow Life: Part 2," an exhibition curated by Paul McCarthy of works that have influenced him, will be on view at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, from Jan. 27 through May 30.

"Santa's Little Helper" originally appeared in the December 2008 / January 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' December 2008 / January 2009 Table of Contents.