The Bizarre Art of Paul McCarthy: Fascinating or Nauseating?

Paul McCarthy’s often-disturbing works show characters like Walt Disney, Santa Claus, or Heidi in unsettling scenes.

May 31, 2023By Stefanie Graf, MA in progress, BA in Art History
paul mccarthy fascinating bizarre art


Paul McCarthy’s transgressive art often revolves around the body and the breaking of social norms. Whether he makes a mess with ketchup, chocolate syrup, and meat or depicts beloved fictional characters in uncanny or sexual ways, his viewers are usually left to have strong reactions. Read on to learn more about Paul McCarthy’s extravagant artworks.


Paul McCarthy’s Early Life and Career

Paul McCarthy, 2012, via The Independent


Paul McCarthy was born in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1945. He was raised in a Mormon family and grew up in a middle-class environment. The neighborhood he grew up in had a similarly strange and uncanny feel as many of his works do. According to the artist, a contractor wanted to build a suburb for veterans so he could profit from the GI loans, but he was only able to build three streets before he ran out of money. This meant that when McCarthy went out of the back door of his childhood home, there was not another home around for miles. There was only an empty landscape. When he walked out of the front door, though, McCarthy would see what looked like an ordinary suburban street. He compared it to a film set that was only built for the purpose of filming.


McCarthy grew up in a conservative and religious environment where people wouldn’t talk about sex. This obviously influenced his work. But the artist also stresses the fact that other places in the USA were equally repressive and that viewers of his art should not focus too heavily on these factors. McCarthy’s parents were open, rather liberal, and supported his artistic inclinations.


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Paul McCarthy as Walt Disney, via the New York Times


McCarthy had problems in school due to dyslexia, so he was sent to art classes. There, he got to know the work of Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso, Allen Ginsberg, Edvard Munch, Käthe Kollwitz, and the Ashcan School. Growing up, McCarthy felt that there was something wrong with the seemingly picturesque and peaceful environment.

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After high school, he first went to a junior college in Ogden called Weber State. Later, he transferred to the University of Utah. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1969 and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles in 1973. During his studies at the University of Utah, McCarthy was interested in film, art, music, Fluxus, and Yoko Ono’s work. He was influenced by Assemblage, Environment & Happenings, a catalog created by Allan Kaprow. During this time, he also created some of his early performance pieces.


Paul McCarthy’s Performance Art

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Hot Dog by Paul McCarthy, 1974, via Phillips


Paul McCarthy became famous through his performances. One of his early performance pieces titled Saw/Hammer was carried out in 1967 and consisted of him arranging furniture on a stage, only to destroy the whole setting with chainsaws and hammers with the help of a friend. A noise band played behind McCarthy and his friend during their act of destruction. One of his earliest sculptures was made through this performance. Titled Mannequin Head and Squirrel, it displays the broken head of a mannequin and a stuffed squirrel that seems to have been thrust into the head. The disturbing quality of the sculpture continued to be a dominant theme in McCarthy’s art.


During the 1970s, McCarthy started to integrate food into his work, a practice for which he is still known today. For the piece Hot Dog, from the year 1974, he used ketchup, mustard, hot dogs as well as his own body. The artist Barbara Smith was present during the performance, which took place in the basement of McCarthy’s studio. According to her, McCarthy started the performance by undressing and shaving his body. After that, he put his penis into a hotdog bun, which he fixed with tape. He then put mustard on his bottom, drank ketchup, and stuffed real hot dogs into his mouth. He taped up his stuffed mouth, which resulted in him trying not to throw up.


Smith herself said that she tried not to vomit. Other performances like Spit Face (1970-75), Shit Face (1974), Sailor’s Meat (1974), and Class Fool (1976) evoked similar feelings of nausea. In Class Fool (1975), for example, he slipped in ketchup, fell, and ran into things, which caused him to start bleeding. He then threw up a few times and inserted a Barbie Doll into his rectum.


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Painter by Paul McCarthy, 1995, via Tate, London


McCarthy started making videos in the early 1970s and recording many of his performances. During the 1970s and early 1980s, performance art was an essential part of his work. He stopped doing performances in front of a live audience in 1983, but he still made videos of himself performing as certain characters.


The work Painter (1995), for example, is a fifty-minute-long video that shows McCarthy dressed in a blue smock and wearing a blond wig playing a painter working in his studio. He wears several prosthetics, like enlarged ears, a bulbous nose, and big rubber hands. His paintbrush and tubes of paint are huge, which in addition to McCarthy’s erratic, clumsy, and exaggerated behavior have a comical effect. The comical and equally disturbing performance has been interpreted as a satire of artists as serious and genius creators.


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Bossy Burger by Paul McCarthy, 1991, via MoMA, London


The performance of the earlier work Bossy Burger from 1991 was also created for a video and not for a live audience. Bossy Burger is a parody of a television cooking program. McCarthy is seen wearing a chef’s hat, clown shoes, and an Alfred E. Neuman mask. The set in which the performance took place was once used for Family Affair, a sitcom that aired from 1966 to 1971. During the performance, McCarthy’s uncanny character smears ketchup all over a chair and yells at a non-existent audience. The video was exhibited as part of a gallery installation that included the deteriorating set used in the video. Painter and Bossy Burger are both famous examples of Paul McCarthy’s video performance work.


Motifs in Paul McCarthy’s Work

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Santa Chocolate Shop by Paul McCarthy, 1997, via Moderna Museet, Stockholm


Humor, the abject, sexuality, violence, the representation of bodily fluids, human waste, the disturbing depiction of fictional characters, and the human psyche are all important themes or parts of Paul McCarthy’s work. Tom Williams described McCarthy’s work as operating somewhere between bathroom humor and psychoanalytic discovery.


Ketchup, a material Paul McCarthy uses repeatedly in his work, can function as a representation of blood, but it doesn’t necessarily have to stand for it. In his 1997 work Santa Chocolate Shop, the syrupy chocolate that is smeared all over the performers is very reminiscent of feces. The representation of bodily fluids through food like ketchup and mayonnaise is characteristic of McCarthy’s work. As the famous critic Robert Storr once said when talking about McCarthy’s work, mayonnaise isn’t exactly semen, but it’s close.


Due to the repulsive effect of many of his pieces, McCarthy’s works are often associated with abject art. Abject art encompasses works that engage in transgressions or pose a threat to a societal idea of purity. The integration of bodily fluids, such as blood, urine, semen, or saliva is one example of this. The concept of the abject was famously discussed in a work by psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva called Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. When asked why people have such a strong reaction to bodily fluids, McCarthy said: Maybe it is a conditioned response: we’re taught to be disgusted by our fluids. Maybe it’s related to a fear of death. Body fluids are base material.


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Pinocchio Pipenose Householddilemma by Paul McCarthy, 1994, via Peabody Essex Museum


Violence and sexuality are two other present motifs in Paul McCarthy’s work. Usually, these are combined with seemingly innocent figures. In the Pinocchio Pipenose Householddilemma, someone dressed in a Pinocchio costume violently interacts with a figure wearing the same costume. In Heidi, which is the product of a collaboration with the artist Mike Kelley, the eponymous Heidi lives in a world of domestic abuse and incest. The work was based on the novel Heidi written by the Swiss author Johanna Spyri. McCarthy’s piece subverts the purity and idyllic environment associated with the famous story.


Heidi gets a tattoo in the video, and the work references Adolf Loos’ essay Ornament and Crime. In his essay, Loos argues that all art is erotic and that while it’s natural for a child to draw erotic symbols on a wall, the same behavior makes modern adults degenerates. He also argues that modern people who get tattoos are either criminals or degenerates. Adolf Loos was disgraced by a pedophilia scandal in Vienna, which makes him similar to the video’s sexually abusive grandfather.


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Photo from Paul McCarthy’s WS by Joshua White, via PHAIDON


In addition to characters like Heidi, Santa Claus, and Pinocchio, Paul McCarthy also includes Walt Disney in his work. When asked about people’s strong reaction to bodily fluids he referenced the cleanliness of Disneyland, stating that hygiene is the religion of fascism. For him, Disney is a kind of political Shangri-La that functions as a prison in which people are lured with superficial safety and cleanliness. The ideas of purity and idealized figures of popular culture transform into grotesque, disturbing characters in McCarthy’s work.


McCarthy has also been influenced by Hollywood and its artificial and kitschy qualities. When he made his early performances, he often tried to copy poses from B-movies. For Heidi, Paul McCarthy wore a mask of a character from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

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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.