Gunk Fathers

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Alberto Burri, "Bianco Plastica," 1961.

Alberto Burri spent life rejecting—rejecting roles, rules, materials, explanations, nationalities, natural trajectories. The Italian artist went to Africa as a doctor in the 1940s, but ended up a prisoner of war in Texas. He abandoned medicine, took up painting, and returned to Rome upon his release,  becoming an Arte Povera practitioner before the movement existed, and developing a penchant for the gunky and gross. He also became transcontinental, living part-time  in the Hollywood Hills, acting as  a sort of socialite,  all while burning plastic, stitching burlap, and lobbing together traditional and found materials with a dogged disregard for archivability. He resisted talking about his art or irreverence, just like he resisted talking about his POW days. But he was frustratingly good at making resistance and rejection look like a circuitous means of acceptance. In Tutti Bianco, a painting currently on view in Combustione: Alberto Burri and America at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, globs of glue and paint look like cracked, dry milk but they’re also as subtly austere as a grayish Rothko.

Paul McCarthy, "Painter," video, 1995.

The surface of Tutti Bianco shares its fractured milkiness with the foam ball Paul McCarthy abuses in his 1987 film, Family Tyranny. McCarthy feeds the ball a watery, mayonnaise-heavy liquid, which drips down its chin and seeps into its fissures. As he does so, he says things like, “I’m gonna make him eat what he doesn’t want to eat,” or “let him feel it, do it slowly.” He frequently breaks into song: “Daddy came home from work again, Daddy came home from work.” McCarthy has talked about “finding himself making [absurd, abusive] work about the father and son.” He’s also talked about transforming from son into father.

Showing just a few miles south of Burri’s Combustione, at L & M Art’s almost colonial new space, McCarthy is a rejecter, too. But while Burri set fires, let fluids drip and run, then reticently evacuated his work of signs of himself, McCarthy has rejected evacuation and reticence in favor of exposition. In his earliest work, he acts out the brassy prodigal, willing to expose all in order to break from his lineage. He’s obsessed with texture and materials, but wants to show where they come from, no matter how unpleasant their origins. Grainy videos like Sauce (1974), in which a young, wild-haired body smothers his limbs in ketchup while breathing heavily and hotly, or Black and White Tapes (1978), in which a body leaves thick residue as it slowly pulls itself along the floor, is stuff that makes skin crawl.

Paul McCarthy, "Train, Mechanical," 2010.

Later, in the era following Family Tyranny, McCarthy stopped being just the prodigal, and became a son fighting his father urges. There was Painter (1995), in which a human puppet clad in a hospital-blue robe wields a Claus-Oldenburg-worthy brush. Anxiously dumb monologues propel the painter forward. “Try to understand the emotions, try to feel,” he mutters, coaxing himself up the canvas to make swift, awkward strokes. The resulting painting has a thick, brown, ineffability, despite all the effing and grunting that went into its creation. It’s parentally ab-ex but made with angst.

In the years since, McCarthy’s production quality has increased exponentially, he’s graduated from fugitive video to carefully manufactured mechanics and inflatables, and become fixated on cartoons, butt plugs and George Bush puppets. He’s lost some of that childish, father-hating anxiety, and his caginess about becoming a father himself has dissipated–or, at least, it makes a feeble showing in his work.

Paul McCarthy, "Ship of Fools, Ship Adrift," 2010; Alberto Burri, "Nero Plastica L.A.," 1963.

At L & M Arts, his sculptures are surprisingly staid, work of an artist who owns his subject matter and his craft. Bobble-headed, gooey but resolved gray children occupy the garden. Dual, mechanized Bush stand-ins with rhythmically spinning heads screw pigs that are being screwed by other pigs in the western gallery. The politics of this are predictable, but the craft is virtuosic. Smooth shoe-clad pig feet contrast the intermittently rough and pristine boots of the nude Texan. The larger pigs’ faces collapse into themselves, while pink, fleshy flaps cover the eyes of the smaller pigs. The two Bushes move forward and back, the smaller pigs move laterally, and everything works seamlessly. If I could take the recognizable out and just see the strange, visceral motions, I think I’d be awed.

In the east gallery, there’s the burnt, black Ship of Fool, Ship Adrift (2010), full of more bobble-headed children with what resemble Pinocchio noses sticking out of mouths, eyes, and other orifices–a Hans Christian Andersen worthy warpedness that, again, is easy to imagine emptying itself of its referentiality, becoming the dark, dense topography of a texture-fixated virtuoso. Emptied, the sculptures would uncannily resemble Burri’s Nero Plastica L.A. (1963), waves of black, burnt plastic rippling across canvas.

McCarthy and Burri are both father figures now, both staunchly, un-provocatively good at what they do.