6 Bizarre Public Sculptures by Paul McCarthy

Paul McCarthy’s public artworks are usually characterized by their enormous size and controversial nature.

Jul 8, 2023By Stefanie Graf, MA in progress, BA in Art History

paul maccarthy public sculptures


The works of Paul McCarthy often confront the viewer with their uncanny, grotesque, and repulsive elements. Making a mess with condiments reminiscent of bodily fluids like chocolate syrup, ketchup, and mayonnaise is just as characteristic of McCarthy’s work as mixing the scary with the familiar, turning childhood dreams into nightmarish visions. Similar to his video art and performance pieces, his public sculptures deal with topics like sexuality, taboos, and the uncanny. Here are 6 examples of the American artist’s bizarre public sculptures.


1. Paul McCarthy’s Santa Claus

paul mccarthy santa claus
Photo of Paul McCarthy’s Santa Claus by Jannes Linders, via Sculpture International Rotterdam


The location of Paul McCarthy’s Santa Claus sculpture has been a highly debated topic. The sexual nature of the work caused controversy among residents and local politicians. Since the ambiguous object Santa is holding can be seen as both a Christmas tree and a sex toy, the sculpture received the nickname Butt Plug Gnome. Sculpture International Rotterdam proposed the acquisition of the sculpture to the Rotterdam city council in 2000. The council bought the sculpture in 2002. McCarthy himself apparently doubted whether the work would be accepted in a public space. In 2005, Santa Claus was unveiled at the inner courtyard of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, and in 2008, it was moved to the Eendrachtsplein square in Rotterdam.


McCarthy compared his sculptures to those of Constantin Brâncuși, thereby turning something from low culture into high culture. According to McCarthy, his work also serves as a critique of consumer culture with Santa Claus and Christmas as symbols of consumerism. McCarthy also used Santa Claus as a character in his performance Santa Chocolate Shop which shows performers interacting with excrement-like chocolate syrup.


2. Tree

paul mccarthy tree public sculpture
Tree by Paul McCarthy, via the Los Angeles Times


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Tree is another controversial sculpture by McCarthy displaying the shape of a butt plug. Just like Santa Claus, it is supposed to depict a Christmas tree as well as a sex toy. The 79-foot-high inflatable work was installed in the Place Vendôme in Paris. Some people found the sculpture offensive and one person even attacked McCarthy by slapping him three times and running away. Vandals destroyed the sculpture by deflating it. McCarthy decided against installing the sculpture again saying: I don’t want to be mixed up in this type of controversy and physical violence, or even to keep taking the risks associated with this work.


McCarthy said that he was unaware of the history of Place Vendôme and that it was the only place the FIAC Art Fair offered him to display his sculpture. He admitted that his role as a prankster or provocateur played a part in the making of the piece. The artist was also fascinated by the idea of a green, 80-foot inflatable artwork. McCarthy compared the work to the art of Jean Arp and Constantin Brâncuși.


3. Blockhead 

paul mccarthy blockhead
Blockhead by Paul McCarthy, via Tate, London


Blockhead was installed on Tate Modern’s North Landscape during the Paul McCarthy exhibition at Tate Modern in 2003. It was over 115 feet high and accompanied by an exhibition showing drawings of the sculpture. Through an entrance at the base of the sculpture, people could go into a cave-like room where candy was being sold. McCarthy compared the experience of standing in front of the monumental sculpture to being at the bottom of a cliff. He called Blockhead a black object that creates a hole in the landscape.


The figure is inspired by Pinocchio, a character McCarthy already used in his work. In his video Pinocchio Pipenose Householddilemma, a person dressed in a Pinocchio costume loudly blows into a bowl of ketchup with a pipe that replaces Pinocchio’s iconic nose. The character then repeatedly dips the pipe into a jar of mayonnaise, spills the ketchup, violently fights with a Pinocchio doll, and feeds it chocolate milk through its nose. To see the video in an exhibition, the viewers had to put on a Pinocchio costume and mask similar to the one in the video.


Mixing seemingly innocent characters from children’s books such as Pinocchio or Heidi, with more sinister or sexual themes is characteristic of McCarthy. The clothes the Blockhead figure wears look like the costume of the performer in the video Pinocchio Pipenose Householddilemma or illustrations of Pinocchio. The trademark nose which is often described as phallic is also visible in the inflatable sculpture, but the head has been replaced with a giant cube, resulting in a bizarre version of the character.


4. Daddies Ketchup

Paul McCarthy Daddies Ketchup
Daddies Ketchup by Paul McCarthy, via the New York Times


Daddies Ketchup is another enormous inflatable public artwork by Paul McCarthy. It was part of an exhibition titled Common Ground organized by the Public Art Fund. The exhibition took place at City Hall Park in New York in 2012. It featured the work of ten international artists including Jenny Holzer, Roger Hiorns, and Amalia Pica. The goal of the exhibition was to reinvent the civic monument through the use of abstraction, irony, and humor. Instead of a heroic male character from history, McCarthy’s public sculpture features a huge inflatable bottle of ketchup named after a real ketchup brand called Daddies.


Using ketchup as a material is a trademark of Paul McCarthy’s art. The integration of ketchup in the artist’s work has been interpreted as representing bodily fluid, commodity, and paint. He used it in several pieces such as Ketchup Sandwich, Hot Dog, and Bossy Burger.


Ketchup Sandwich, for example, consists of stacked glass sheets with ketchup between them. It was the first time that McCarthy used the ingredient. In an early performance from 1974 titled Hot Dog, he put his penis into a hotdog bun, smeared mustard on his bottom, drank ketchup, and stuffed his mouth with hot dogs. His filmed performance Bossy Burger from 1991 depicts McCarthy as a creepy host of a cooking show. The artist wears an Alfred E. Neumann mask, a chef’s hat, and clown shoes while smearing ketchup all over the place. The video was shown in a gallery installation with the deteriorating set shown in the work. The inflatable Daddies Ketchup sculpture and a loop of the Bossy Burger video were exhibited together as a part of Frieze Projects: Frieze Los Angeles.


5. Complex Shit

paul mccarthy dog’s dinner complex shit
Complex Pile (formerly Complex Shit) by Paul McCarthy in Hong Kong, via the Guardian


The huge inflatable work Complex Shit was exhibited outside of the Paul Klee Centre in Berne, Switzerland in 2008. Unfortunately, it got blown away and it destroyed a power line and a window at a children’s home. After traveling from its original location, it landed on the grounds of the children’s home. Headlines like Inflatable faeces raises a stink or Up in the sky: is it a turd? Is it a plane? were published in newspapers after the incident happened. The sculpture had a safety system made to deflate the piece during bad weather conditions, but the mechanism did not work. Complex Shit was part of an exhibition titled East of Eden: A Garden Show at the Paul Klee Centre in Berne.


Five years later, in 2013, the inflatable pile was again brought down by bad weather. It was exhibited as part of an inflatable art show in West Kowloon in Hong Kong. The show was organized by the visual culture museum M+. According to the staff, heavy rain caused a small hole in the inflatable piece and the work was deflated. Another inflatable work called Black Lotus by the Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa was also affected by the sudden weather change and therefore deflated as well.


6. Paul McCarthy’s Apple Tree Boy Apple Tree Girl 

paul maccarthy apple tree boy girl
Apple Tree Boy Apple Tree Girl by Paul McCarthy, 2010, via Christie’s


Paul McCarthy’s Apple Tree Boy Apple Tree Girl was part of the 7th Edition of the annual London sculpture park called Sculpture in the City. Along with fifteen other sculptures Apple Tree Boy Apple Tree Girl could be seen in London from 2017 to 2018. The sculpture park also included works by artists like Damien Hirst and Daniel Buren.


McCarthy’s colossal Apple Tree Boy Apple Tree Girl is part of his Hummel series. The series is based on the kitschy porcelain Hummel figurines, which usually depict round-faced innocent-looking children with rosy cheeks in idyllic settings. The figurines are based on the drawings of the German nun Berta Hummel. Franz Goebel, the owner of a porcelain factory in Bavaria, decided to make figurines based on her drawings in the 1930s. American soldiers stationed in post-war Germany became the first mass consumers of the Hummel figurines. The saccharine figures depicting children in pastoral settings became a famous collector’s item.


Paul McCarthy’s Apple Tree Boy Apple Tree Girl, however, shows a deformed and dripping version of the popular Hummel figurines. The sculpture transforms the innocent Hummel characters into something more sinister. On the website of Sculpture in the City, for example, the children in Apple Tree Boy Apple Tree Girl are compared to the Hitler Youth. The title of McCarthy’s work also seems to allude to Adam and Eve.


paul mccarthy mountaineer hummel
Mountaineer Hummel (Puck Penisssss) by Paul McCarthy, 2009, via Christie’s


Another example from Paul McCarthy’s Hummel series is his work Mountaineer Hummel (Puck Penisssss). It shows a Mountaineer Hummel figurine chaotically painted over with several colors, a picture of what seems to be two bottles of alcohol glued on it, and PENISSSSS scribbled at the bottom of the work. The deconstruction of purity and innocence is another trademark of McCarthy’s work, whether he makes a video of the character Heidi from the eponymous children’s novel having a sexual relationship with her grandfather, or a similarly grotesque depiction of Walt Disney. In an interview, Paul McCarthy expressed his thoughts on Disneyland, purity, and bodily fluids by saying: We’re taught to be disgusted by our fluids. Maybe it’s related to a fear of death. Body fluids are base material. Disneyland is so clean; hygiene is the religion of fascism.

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By Stefanie GrafMA in progress, BA in Art HistoryStefanie is completing her bachelor’s degree in art history at the University of Vienna, Austria. She will commence her master’s degree next semester. She has a passion for modern and contemporary art, architecture, and art theory. Interested in researching and reading about the impact art has on the viewer and on society, Stefanie believes that art can change, question and shape the way we think and live.