When we asked Paul McCarthy about the lineage of butt plugs and Santa Claus in his practice, a two hour conversation ensued. He talked through five careening decades of instances and iterations.
A butt plug first appeared in a 1978 work by McCarthy straightforwardly titled Chair with Butt Plug or, alternatively, Brâncuși on a Pedastal. At the time, he was making work with the limited repertoire of materials available to him at art school in Los Angeles. An emerging interest in what found objects might mean in different contexts and combinations was matched with a considered arbitrariness that called to the readymades of Marcel Duchamp.
How the plug got there remains a mystery – “I don’t think I went out and bought it.” For McCarthy, more important than the plug’s origins are the new meanings it took on in the context of his studio. Having 'entered the art world' McCarthy’s plug became a Brâncuși-esque monolith, and the chair it sat on, a pedestal. All the while, a lewd reading of the arrangement hovered just below the surface.
Born 1945 in Utah, Paul McCarthy is a hugely influential artist – courting controversy and critical acclaim in equal measure since the 1970s. To find out more, visit his artist page.
There was calling it one thing, and then there was what it also was. It was both things, and I liked that it was both things. Somehow merging those two things together – a Brâncuși on a pedestal and a butt plug to sit on. It was a kind of joke, but serious.
McCarthy paused to explain the regressed status of a butt plug in the 1970s. Confined to homosexual circles. More shocking. More taboo. Less varied, and harder to come by. “The butt plug world is way different now than it was back then. You just didn’t see them around like you do now. It was a secret object.”
Santa, meanwhile, made his first appearance some years earlier in McCarthy’s childhood drawings. He returned around 1970 in a series of works drawn by the artist while stoned, alongside a number of the signifiers and archetypes that have since become integral parts of McCarthy’s lexicon.
While disparate, McCarthy's subjects are united by their pre-existing dualities and potent subtexts – as well as by their compatibility with his appetite for the underbelly of Western culture. Santa, for example, is ripe for satire as a quasi-religious, god-like bastion of life under capitalism. McCarthy concludes a number of explanations for his choices with the telling paradox – “a joke, but serious.”
Later, McCarthy became Santa himself in a string of anarchic performances.
Tokyo Santa (1996) saw the artist draw at pace in an empty retail unit provided by Tomio Koyama Gallery. Pasting his sketches onto the windows, he gradually obscured the space before venturing out to meet the Tokyo public in a filthy, chocolate-covered Santa suit.
Santa Chocolate Shop (1997), performed in Los Angeles and exhibited in Zurich, continued this lineage with an upended plywood set, disorientating projections and a grotesque amalgam of chocolate and condiments. In the next room was a nativity-like assembly of chocolate figurines, shipped from America to Switzerland and taped back together by McCarthy as they melted in the balmy gallery.
Opened in New York City in 2007 and reprised in Paris in 2014, Chocolate Factory wrangled with the commodification of art by building a production line for thousands of chocolate Santas and plugs. Spinning machines operated by elves in blonde wigs instilled an atmosphere of delirium – a common thread in the scenarios McCarthy orchestrates.
Chocolate, often used alongside sex toys and Santa, is another instance of McCarthy's penchant for a double meaning. “It’s something to eat, and it’s chocolate and brown, and it’s like shit.”
Alongside temporal performances, Santa and his plug embarked on a series of larger and more permanent endeavours.
In 2002 McCarthy was invited to create an artwork for the city of Rotterdam. Piqued by the opportunity to create his first public sculpture, he made two suggestions. The first was a riverside cabin for which the artist and the mayor of the city would be given a key. The second, a butt plug-wielding Santa combining a novelty ornament gifted to McCarthy by friend and fellow artist, Benjamin Weissman, with the original Doc Johnson plug, still sitting on his studio desk. To McCarthy’s surprise – “it seemed too much” – Santa got the green light.
A series of inflatable works in subsequent years riff on the two forms, simultaneously serving and shirking expectations for a monumental sculpture. The series includes an 80-foot high tree/plug erected in Paris' Place Vendôme, which was the subject of furore and viral fame for several days before being deflated by enraged members of the Parisian public. While reluctant to let this saga obscure his original intentions for the work, McCarthy stopped to acknowledge the comedic tenets of the limp green phallus sprawled across the square.
Ensconced by a growing repertoire of symbols and subjects, McCarthy is nonetheless resistant to the notion of a signature. In this sense, he avoids reprisal for reprisal’s sake but retains an appetite – given the opportunity and inspiration – to revisit, rework and reinvent.
In 2002, for example, McCarthy and Jason Rhodes were presented with the opportunity to access the portable toilets at Documenta, an art fair in Germany. A series of experiments, guided in part by a need to avoid unwanted explosions, resulted in a process involving dehydration, irradiation and baby oil. The plug-shaped, faeces-filled glass containers created by the pair fulfilled a neat conceptual loop. Simply put, selling people their own shit.
Santa with Butt Plug Bronze 11.4 inches
Questions of scale, fidelity and colour preside over the newest incarnation of McCarthy’s iconic figure.
A foam buck, created during the process of casting McCarthy’s original Santa Butt Plug sculpture and subsequently left outside to rot for five years in Hungary, was later used to create a fibreglass version of the figure. After several more years of decay, this time outside McCarthy's studio in Los Angeles, the buck was scanned again to create a second bronze sculpture at the same scale as the 2002 Rotterdam commission – currently on view at Ekebergparken in Oslo.
Throughout each process, McCarthy pays particular attention to the accuracy with which the foam is recreated – setting each Santa within an esoteric chronology of decomposition. The most recent scan also provides the reference form for a small-scale rendition, created in collaboration with Avant Arte. As well as highlighting the cracks, fissures and imperfections of the sculpture’s surface, a coat of red paint fulfils McCarthy's chromatic vision for his original Santa Butt Plug sculpture, impeded at the time by budgetary constraints.
Santa with Butt Plug Bronze 11.4 inches belongs to the peerless machinations – self-referential yet endlessly surprising – that continue to fuel McCarthy’s practice. See more at the link below.
Archival content courtesy of Paul McCarthy
Quotes taken from a conversation on August 12, 2022