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Paul McCarthy and Tala Madani on the Power of Seditious Art

In Conversation

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NV, Night Vater, 2019; performance, video, photographs, installation. Directed by Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy

Paul McCarthy is one of the most revered and fearless artists of his generation. For almost half a century, he has made work that, as he has said, ‘grinds into’ the absurdity of everyday existence in late capitalist society, through performance, film, sculpture, painting and drawing. A retrospective of his drawings and works on paper opens 2 February, 2020, and remains on view through 10 May at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

This conversation, which has been edited and condensed, took place in October at McCarthy’s studio east of downtown Los Angeles. Tala Madani (born 1981, Tehran, Iran) is a painter and animator based in Los Angeles, whose work focuses most often on caricatured male figures and infants engaged in comical, perverse, sometimes disturbing dealings. An exhibition of rare female figures, ‘Shit Moms,’ was held this fall at David Kordansky in Los Angeles and a mid-career survey opens in 2020 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Tala Madani: I wanted to start out talking about all your alter egos, characters you have played and embodied as kind of scary father figures—Santa, pirates, sailors, Walt Disney, de Kooning, now Trump. When you’re in those characters, do you think of the way society thinks of them? Is it that you’re trying to find some humaneness in them? How do you think of their badness?

Paul McCarthy: In a limited way, I play with their identity, what society thinks of them or what I think of them. It’s a caricature—in some cases closer than others. I’m not concerned at all with an accurate portrayal. It’s an abstraction, and it’s all filtered through Paul. The other night I was talking to a friend, a psychologist; he was saying that, in group therapy, people take on rolls within the dynamic of the group. Someone becomes a leader; someone becomes the asshole or the bad guy, and someone the victim. But that bad guy is just part of who we all are. It turns out that it’s necessary in a group body, so they say.

TM: Yeah, I kind of get that. I’m always hoping that, broadly, that dynamic would be more understood and admitted—the social accountability for what we consider or label as Evil.

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Paul McCarthy, Santa With Butt Plug, 2007; Installation at Open Air Museum for Sculpture Middelheim. All McCarthy images: © Paul McCarthy
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Tala Madani, Beards, 2015. Photo: Joshua White/ JWPictures. All Madani images: © Tala Madani. Courtesy David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles

PM: I often explain my work by saying that my art is a mirror with a crack; that’s a simplification and maybe a cliché. It’s mirroring or regurgitating through Paul. Violence exists in the world in some countries and places more than others—genocide, real horror, real violence. My work is a reflection of that but also a reflection of mediated violence and the desire for violence. Since the mid-’60s, my work has involved images of sexuality, death, the male and female, the buffoon patriarch and often the mother, the daughter and the son.

TM: I think the ‘desire for violence’ is interesting. Children are born with a natural ability to be aggressive, and then they learn empathy and how to express love. Acts of violence as a defensive mechanism are also interesting.

‘The studio is both a private process and a collective group process…When we’re filming, recording, the crew can get large. The studio then resembles a sound stage—for me, it’s an appropriation of a Hollywood trope, but a bastardization, a fucked-up version.’
—Paul McCarthy

PM: The videos I made last year with my son, Damon, which we’re still editing—CSSC, which draws on the Western movie Stagecoach, and a piece called DADDA—are violent caricatures. In DADDA I play Donald Trump or Donald Duck, and I’m an abusive buffoon, a drunken clown. In the video, people are being killed. There are no alliances—being killed, abused or beaten can happen to anyone by anyone. It’s absurdity, a caricature. But I don’t know how one tops the absurdity, buffoonery of Trump or what is happening now.

TM: Somebody will. There’s always somebody.

PM: When we did WS White Snow, I’m a character called Walt Paul. I’m not Walt Disney and I’m not Paul either. Maybe more Paul than Walt Disney. In DADDA, the Trump character is an amalgamation map of who we are, a combination of male characters—a fool. He changes as the piece goes along. The piece that we just worked on is loosely based on The Night Porter. It’s a film from 1974 by Liliana Cavani. In it, Max is a former SS officer who is hiding his identity in Vienna, where he reestablishes his sadomasochistic relationship with a former Holocaust victim, Lucia, played by Charlotte Rampling. We started the project with the idea of shooting in Vienna but ended up shooting in a set we built in our studio in L.A. and the piece changed. It became an abstraction of scenes where a female actress, Lucia, played by Lilith Stangenberg, flies from Germany to America to audition for a film produced by Max, who I play, who likes to dress as a Nazi officer. Max resembles a cliché of a Mafioso. I was thinking of global politics as organized crime. It is a mixture of global political mafia mentality and Holly­wood. Max’s interest is not making films; it’s a form of direct manipulation, abuse and violence toward others. But ultimately, the narrative is a structure to let something from inside happen.

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CSSC Coach Stage Stage Coach, 2017; performance, video, photographs, installation Directed by Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy

TM: Do you play the female characters in this as well, in parts of the shoot?

PM: In this one, no. But in other ones, yeah, I have.

TM: Does playing a character like that give you something that feels like a real experience of events and the traumatic elements of them, the psychological elements? Is it a trance-like experience of being there?

PM: There are moments where things move, connect, and the experience feels real. Trance—that word trance—I’ve always thought that it’s something about focus, a form of intense focus where one seems to vanish.

TM: Focus? Like, a way of making magic?

PM: I have always spun around, since I was kid. I still spin. In the Night Porter piece, Lilith and I, drunk, spun in the hall to produce a delirium. Repeating an action or a word over and over, repetition, can do it, too. Possibly trance could be a form of focus, but not a thinking focus. At times in performances you lose a part of yourself. You are in another place, in another reality. It’s one thing for me to do it alone. I can usually make it happen. But doing it with others, it’s really about connection.

TM: At this moment, is that more interesting for you, the group dynamic?

PM: It is. There’s the two-person thing or the three-person. And then there’s groups, 5, 10, 15 people, where it gets crazy, intense.

TM: Obviously, I haven’t been with you on the set, but I perceive you, Paul, as being fundamentally a nice, decent person. There are artists, we all know, who are very mean to work with. You’re not one of those people. So I always wonder how you control what you want. Not control, that’s the wrong word. But how do you overcome, let’s say, your disappointment or frustration with the other parties? It’s not like a regular a film production, a Hollywood movie. You’re trying to make something happen that’s more like a sculpture. How do you deal with that? Do you just move on to the next day if you don’t feel it happening?

PM: I think the regrets happen later.

TM: In the editing room?

PM: In editing, you realize the mistakes. Before shooting, you try to figure it out in rehearsals. Rehearsals become a zone to find positions and how things might flow and what it might be; you experiment. All of this gives you more freedom to find things you didn’t expect; you gamble with improvisation.

TM: A lot of risk.

PM: You take risks, some people more than others. Sometimes you miss it and it doesn’t click, and other times something perfect happens, a moment happens, another reality.

TM: It makes me think about the director Nicholas Ray, when he got ousted from Hollywood and got a job in Vermont, teaching at a university. He made a film with all his students, and they all acted in it and produced it. It’s called We Can’t Go Home Again [1973]. Something about what you do here, as an enterprise and activity, reminds me a little bit of that.

PM: I think there’s a performance genre, the genre of pretend, coming out of art, out of artists. Andy Warhol films like Lonesome Cowboys [1968] and Trash [1970], the films of Jack Smith and Otto Muehl and my videos. It’s a genre where it’s evident that pretending is occurring. But it doesn’t mean it can’t be charged or traumatic. It’s maybe childlike, but with adult awareness—a place to transgress. You enter it.

TM: There’s a certain kind of usefulness in being childlike. Child’s play is serious business and you can lose that space of serious play when you get older.

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Exterior of a Western saloon set used by McCarthy for recent video projects relating to the movie Stagecoach; the set is based on one used by Fassbinder for the 1971 film Whity, borrowed from Sergio Leone. Photo: Frederik Nilsen.
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DADDA Donald and Daisy Duck Adventure, 2018; performance, video, photographs, installation. Directed by Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy. Photo: Alex Stevens

PM: There should be a film festival of these kind of works, a type of ugly pretend. The Festival of Ugly Pretend. There’s a film Dennis Hopper made in 1971 called The Last Movie. Hopper’s character is a stunt man in a film being made in a village in Peru. One of the actors is hurt. The film crew leaves. Hopper stays and ends up helping the villagers make a movie. The cameras are made of sticks, but the action, the violence, is real. The villagers don’t understand film fakery. It’s pretend as real and real as pretend but ultimately pretend. I like the film, but it’s often on lists of the worst films.

TM: A lot of works that artists like often are. Iranian cinema does this a little, using real people instead of actors, bringing a certain realism. A backdrop of realism highlights the pretend aspect.

PM: Orson Welles’ film The Other Side of the Wind is in this genre. It’s a film with layers of actual and pretend, twisted forms of actual and pretend, a film-in-a-film plot. Quite crazy. I think also the last films of Nicholas Ray. Both of these directors separated themselves from Hollywood; they rejected the business of the Hollywood industry to determine their films. These films, this genre of pretend, are all rooms of mirrors, reflections of reflections.

TM: On the subject of working together, I was touched when you accepted an honor from the Hammer once and your acceptance speech was dedicated to Mike Kelley. Not to go into this too much, but I was thinking, coming here today, about the artists you came up with, the people you trusted and who your ideas grew along with, and wondering if you feel that missing now. Is there enough of that kind of connection anymore?

PM: Well, the two people I collaborated with a lot, Jason Rhoades and Mike Kelley, are of course both gone now. I think that we exchanged ideas around the pieces we were working on, the collaboration. Did we talk about each other’s work, project pieces? Not a lot. I think the dialogue came out in the collaboration. Even with Chris Burden, who I was close with, did we ever really talk about each other’s art? No. But with these three artists, we would talk about other artists’ work, the art world and society, culture; always jokes, humor. I think L.A. was interesting in the ’70s and ’80s because of the spread of the city. You were isolated more than now. I didn’t have any angry disagreements with artists. There were artists whose work was opposite in its objective from mine, but it never became a problem. I saw more heated disagreements beginning in the ’90s, artists who wouldn’t talk to each other. L.A. changed.

‘I’m very interested in group dynamics, the melting of individuality into a mass and the exhilaration that comes with the possibility of loss of self. Then there are the men themselves. I’m interested in what I don’t have access to.’ —Tala Madani

TM: I think of those kinds of fights in the ’70s as being different, not as much about competition or careers or money, but having to do more with differences in ideology, in a way that most artists I know now just don’t experience. There’s not the same kind of passion around ideas.

PM: That could also be related to the changes in the art world— the art world is now big business. That is a change; there’s more money, more galleries, more art fairs. There was a massive change in art in the ’80s—the end of the alternative art space, the resurgence of the art gallery and painting. Art and life became a dead issue. It seems to me that this commercialization began to ramp up 10 to 15 years ago. Right now, I feel a bit on the outside. It seems that something else is being defined. It’s controlled by the audience, the collector. With friends, we talk about Trump, what’s going on in the world, trying to map it, and then there’s the art world.

TM: I can understand that. This big business aspect of the galleries makes them take fewer risks with difficult work and narrows the possibilities of which kind of artists will have a platform to continue. With curators now attending the ever-increasing art fairs as spaces for research, the big business of art only narrows what kind of work we might encounter.

PM: Maybe there are two channels, there is art and artist and then there is the art world—the institutions, galleries, museums, art fairs and auction houses. It’s a two-sided coin. The art world has become more and more corporate. It’s part of the spread of global capitalism. It’s an indicator of the future. Money is seductive. I’m interested in conversation, discussion, casual bullshitting, long sessions with friends. I have been doing this for quite some time. We sit down to do it, and it goes where it goes. It’s part of the process, the performance process, the art process. In most of the projects I’ve done with others—Mike Kelley, Jason Rhoades, Damon—ideas came from jokes while talking, and they evolve from there.

TM: Then you create a space for a more collective consciousness to sort of grow and for people to feed each other?

PM: I hope so. In my case, there’s a migrating collective. The studio is both a private process and a collective group process. I have feet in two buckets. When we’re filming, recording, the crew can get large. The studio then resembles a sound stage—for me, it’s an appropriation of a Hollywood trope, but a bastardization, a fucked-up version. I’m interested in it as a sculptural form or as theater in its entirety. The question begins to be: Where does it end? And then, does the outside art world care about such forms now, and or does this type of work even belong there? I once thought that was happening. I once felt that the gates were wide open. Artists like Duchamp, Kaprow, Lee Lozano, Dieter Roth—there’s a long list of artists who opened the doors. It might be that both channels within the two-sided art world system are redefining themselves. We’ll have to see where it goes.

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Tala Madani, Shit Mom (Sandcastles), 2019. Photo: Lee Thompson
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Paul McCarthy, The Garden, 1991-92

TM: The gates are definitely not very open. The social isolation that has happened through the expansion of social media and its false sense of connectivity make the actual experience of anything sublime or aesthetic or remotely surprising, very difficult. It makes everyone hyper self-aware, afraid of making a mistake, saying the wrong thing, etcetera. I love talking about and hearing about Kippenberger for this very reason. He was never afraid to push.

PM: In my case, there’s a problem. I built a machine. It was intentional. It was an idea. It was what I wanted to do—to appropriate a Hollywood studio, to make a B-movie studio that was dysfunctional, an ugly duckling so to speak, a form of freedom, a crazy idea, a black hole. Jason Rhoades said that he didn’t want to build a factory, a machine like mine.

TM: How funny, when you think about the immensity of his pieces.

PM: I think before he died he was looking for another form outside the art-world parameters. I think of his death as a loss on so many levels. Mike Kelley, just before he died, had very strong feelings about the direction art was going in, especially museums.

TM: Wow, that’s interesting.

PM: With Mike and Jason, there was a real concern with what they saw as the new direction of society and art. Mike felt that his work had changed because of the art industry. I think it had to do with production and fabrication. I think it was such a moment for him, so tangled, he couldn’t see his way out. He seemed to be in a state of dichotomy, of pure insights and blindness.

TM: There can be heartbreak in it because it doesn’t happen immediately. It can happen slowly if you don’t watch it. What you say about public sentiment for art being affected as part of this bigger shift is so key. If what you created was a space where you could express yourself, and then, all of a sudden, you’re just feeding something that has this incredible power, a depression can come with that, a feeling like: ‘I worked so hard to believe in myself. How the fuck did it get out of my hand?’ I like to think one can always backtrack, though.

PM: I can’t.

TM: You can’t?

PM: It’s a bit of a trap. I came here with the idea that there was a potential to make fucked-up things actually within the production machine of Hollywood. But that was literally killed. I really feel that Reagan­omics killed everything; a fundamental cultural change began to happen in those years in which everything became about profit. The avant-garde culture in America died. The worlds of conceptualism, performance, alternative art spaces, independent European films being shown in so many theaters and public support and public sentiment for art—everything was affected, infected during Reagan. Reaganomics was the beginning of the downfall of where we are now, politically. I’m ranting! I want to talk about your work. I think there are connections, interest, between your work and mine. One is men and groups of men and another is shit. Maybe bearded men, too.

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NV, Night Vater, 2019; performance, video, photographs, installation. Directed by Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy. Photo: Alex Stevens

TM: Sure. Yes, I deal with men. In the animation Mr. Time, which I finished last year, I had this idea for a man to be like time, going up and down escalators, around and around. Then a group comes and starts to mess with him, trying to stop him. In animating them, the men started walking as though they’re blind, and I went with that, made them blind. I’m very interested in group dynamics, the melting of individuality into a mass and the exhilaration that comes with the possibility of loss of self. Then there are the men themselves. I’m interested in what I don’t have access to. I have a lot of access to groups of women—women gathering in a women’s-only bathroom or a locker room. But I can’t go to the men’s side, so I’m always fascinated. What does it look like? Does it have better stalls? [laughs] In fact, the only time I’ve been able to paint women is in this new series that I’m doing that I call The Shit Moms.

PM: Why shit moms?

TM: If the mom is made out of shit, somehow, I’m able to paint her. I couldn’t really paint women unless they were changed dramatically. The form of the woman as it is has to give up being that form and be replaced with shit. The shit kind of takes it back into pre–Adam and Eve, or into some kind of post-future. I was reading an autobiography of Nabokov, and he said something quite interesting about perception and meaning in the work. He was a big chess player. He said that when he sets up a problem in chess, the problem isn’t between the pieces, but it’s between him and the other player. And in art works, I think, the work shouldn’t be read as having an internal problem to solve or suggest. The viewer needs to recognize that he or she is creating the meaning that’s perceived. This collision is interesting to me.

PM: Do you see yourself in that? Do you imagine what people say about the work?

TM: I do and I try not to be too reductive or mean or meager about it. I try to imagine different viewers that have different possibilities and experiences. Some of them might come from Iran, and that really becomes interesting. I have to be honest about things like: Where does the work travel, and who actually sees it? Who can even read something visual? I remember I showed one painting to my grandfather and he said, ‘What am I looking at?’ It was a figurative little doodle. It made me think about the idea that looking at a painting, reading a painting, is not in everyone’s grasp—of their sense of themselves or what they care about doing. To read a painting, it’s a language in itself. You can have different levels of verses. I think about Henry Darger and all those amazingly beautiful scrolls of the girls with the penises, in battle. He didn’t show his work at all. It was purely for himself, with some kind of fantastical imagined audience.

PM: Yeah, his viewer.

TM: If there were no viewers, would I make anything? I imagine not. I think I need to say things, that’s why I paint. But without an audience, I would find a different form, a loudspeaker maybe.

PM: I’m not sure how it works between me, the work and the viewer. I think it has more to do with restrictions and barriers. It’s about explanations. I have a friend, and she told me once that I was just doing it to shock myself.

TM: Are you?

PM: Well, yes and no. But it is what I need and want.

TM: But are you? Do you get shocked when you see something for the first time?

PM: There have been pieces I’ve made that I didn’t show for a while because I myself had to wrap my head around them.

TM: Wow.

PM: Trying something, experimenting with boundaries, wanting to alter something. It’s what you were saying about how you take the female form and you make her into shit. And there she is.

TM: Yeah, totally. That’s exactly her. [Referring to a sketch McCarthy drew on a piece of paper as they were talking.]

PM: She’s made from shit because you can give her a form as long as it’s something else. And she can live that way. Meanwhile, the males can all easily just live as buffoons. [laughs] Often the men I portray are buffoons. Then there’s the psychology between the male and the female. The male can be a monster or a baby. And when he’s a baby, he wants to be abused by the mother. When that happens, she can choose whether to abuse him or reject him.

TM: You know, there’s research in child psychology that says that while schizophrenia’s onset can come at a very early age, in infancy, psychopathology can have its roots in early childhood, when you’re four, five, six. So there’s a line of thinking in which you could say that it’s the mother’s fault when adults turn out to be psychopaths. My husband Nathaniel [Mellors, a fellow artist and musician] says to me, ‘What are you saying, Tala? You’re saying it’s the mother’s fault that Hitler was Hitler?’ He reminds me of the dangers of this line of thinking and its anti-feminist position. But I think that we should understand that mothering is so fucking important in helping not to create a generation of psycho people who want to hurt each other, and that as a society, we need to give more room for good mothering, to make a society in which you don’t tell a mother she has to go back to work right after she has a baby. As a society, there’s so little space for mothering, especially here in the United States.

PM: The buffoon Donald in DADDA and Adolf in a piece called A&E both want to be babies and the women to be their mothers. They regress. In the ’90s at a swap meet in Vienna, I bought a German book from the ’30s on how to raise your children in the Third Reich, and the importance of the mother. The mother is the early primary indoctrinator of the child. But in Disney films, the mother is often dead, and in the pieces I made in the ’80s and early ’90s—Family Tyranny, The Garden and Cultural Gothic—the mother is absent, too. These pieces were about the indoctrination by the father figure. But wait, I wanted to ask you about your work and repetition.

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DADDA Donald and Daisy Duck Adventure, 2018; performance, video, photographs, installation. Directed by Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy

TM: Repetition is very interesting to me as it relates to focus and maybe magic. Also, I’m trying to understand something myself by making it. There’s an intuition, and following the intuition by making the work, some level of understanding sets in.

PM: Concerning repetition, you could say that I’ve been making the same work for the last 40 years.

TM: I know some of your history, but when did you come here, to Los Angeles?

PM: I came in the early ’70s, from San Francisco. I came here for school at USC. I really liked it here—the smog was so thick then; the idea of Hollywood and so many pockets of different people and how fucked-up the whole place was. Very fucked-up and beautiful. When did you come here from Tehran?

TM: 1994, when I was 14 years old. My mother and I moved to western Oregon, to a very small town, a place that was pretty shocking to me. Everyone feels very American in Oregon. I guess that’s how I’d describe it there. I’m always interested in how Americans feel about themselves. What is it to be American, psychologically? I have two American children now, but I’m not American. Many times what saves me, psychologically, from everything, from the world in general and from the art world, is the sense that I’m Iranian. Bottom line, I always have that, psychologically, to go back to. Do you feel that where you’re from saves you?

PM: You mean being an American?

TM: Yes.

PM: I have a number of views of America; one is that it doesn’t look outside of itself. I made a piece, The Garden [1992], with two animatronic men, an older one and a younger one, in a large fake garden, fornicating with nature. They’re self-consumed. They don’t look outside the garden. Prior to making the piece, I’d watched a program on television about Belize in Central America. There was a segment on the Chicago Cubs fans living in Belize. It seems that local Chicago TV is broadcast in Belize, and the segment of the program was about how it was affecting Belize. I was thinking then that Belize watches Chicago, but Chicago never thinks about Belize. As a body, the American population is self-absorbed. The populist TV news in America now is only about Trump. If there is anything about the outside, it’s only in relationship to Trump.

TM: I think a lot about the scale of your work, that it seems to be trying to get at something about an American sense of spectacle, big enough to invade the space where everyone lives now.

PM: My work isn’t really that big. At times it has a scale out of character to what the art world expects.

TM: Well, because of what it’s depicting!

PM: I make different sizes of work, but the art world wants to confine it, to limit art to household walls and room objects. What might be described as my large work is not large relative to the environments we live in. I think it’s often about responding to what I exist in. I’m inside of structures; I’m surrounded by buildings, inside of them, outside of them, and in nature. When I make a set to film in, it’s often immersive. You’re inside of it. It’s simulating the world I live in, the psychology of these spaces. In dreams I’m often in environments. It’s what I want to experience.

Tala Madani, born in Tehran, raised in western Oregon and now living and working in Los Angeles, has been featured in exhibitions at the Hammer Museum, Portikus in Frankfurt, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the MIT List Visual Arts Center, among others. In shows on view through early 2020 at Secession in Vienna and Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, her work will also be the subject of a mid-career survey in 2020 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.