SPACE, 129-131 Mare Street, London E8 3RH

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Paul McCarthy: Black and White Tapes
SPACE, London
24 January - 16 March 2014
Review by Anya Harrison

Entering SPACE’s darkened gallery means being sucked into Paul McCarthy’s uncanny universe where revulsion and an awed attraction exert their forces on the viewer in equal measure. ‘Paul McCarthy: Black and White Tapes’ presents a multi-screen installation of 13 of the LA-based artist’s performance videotapes. Made between 1971 and 1975 they were McCarthy’s first foray into a consciously mediated practice, and already exhibit core concerns that have latterly come to define and distinguish his work.

The room is left empty save for small cube monitors on plinths that are dispersed around the gallery in a grid-like arrangement. The selected videos play in a constant loop. Compared to McCarthy’s subsequent work, which is big both in terms of scale and psychological affect, ‘Black and White Tapes’ feel like a symbolic move through a formal and conceptual ‘degree zero’.

The recordings, made with borrowed equipment from the dentistry department of The University of Southern California, destabilise established myths and tropes. Much has already been written about the confluence of diverse trends and ‘isms in McCarthy’s work, from Action Painting to Viennese Actionism, from Gutai to Minimalism. In ‘Painting Face Down - White Line’ (1972), however, in which a prostrate McCarthy pushes a tin of emulsion paint across the floor with his face, he sullies both the figure of the artist as pure, solitary genius and the conceptual cool of task-based performance practice. Similarly, ‘Whipping the Wall with Paint’ (1975) infuses the serious-minded legacy of Action Painting with an altogether foreign element of farce. The remaining works present a comparable repetition of basic gestures - spinning, spitting, drooling, masturbating - that achieve Beckettian levels of duration and endurance.

As with anything that McCarthy produces, ‘Black and White Tapes’ are by no means easy to watch, stirring strong feelings of discomfort and self-consciousness in the viewer. Spend a certain amount of time in front of ‘Icicle Slobber (Basement Tapes)’ (1975), watching McCarthy produce an interrupted stream of drool from his mouth, or ‘Up Down Penis Show (Basement Tapes)’ (1974), in which the camera zooms in on the artist’s upside down torso and penis as he thrusts his pelvis up and down, and you are left feeling embarrassed and ill at ease even if you are the sole visitor to the gallery.

Perhaps this is because seeing the body and its accompanying actions stripped down to their most raw, primal functions, we are reminded of the fragile border that keeps us from (re)lapsing into a similar de-sanitised state the minute social conventions are dismissed. These tapes disturb precisely because they leave no place in which to hide and nowhere to avert our gaze.

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