The first comprehensive survey in the United States of drawings and works on paper by the Los Angeles–based Paul McCarthy (b. 1945, Salt Lake City), Paul McCarthy: Head Space, Drawings 1963–2019, reveals a rarely examined aspect of the artist’s oeuvre. The exhibition delves into the significant role of drawing in McCarthy’s broader practice, which spans performance, video, photography, sculpture, and installation. By presenting his expansive career of more than five decades through the focused lens of drawing, Head Space offers a greater understanding of this influential artist and social commentator. The exhibition presents nearly 600 works, thoughtfully selected from McCarthy’s archive of drawings.
“Paul McCarthy: Head Space, Drawings 1963-2019 underscores the Hammer’s special focus on both Los Angeles–based artists and works on paper,” says Hammer Director Ann Philbin. “Paul McCarthy is not only a major international artist but an iconic figure in Los Angeles art history. His magnificent and varied drawings provide a way to navigate the themes and social critique that reoccur throughout his performance, installation, film and sculptural work.”
Produced in thematic cycles, McCarthy’s drawings share the same visual language as his sculptural and performance works, evoking and addressing themes of violence, humor, death, sex, politics, and featuring extensive art historical and popular cultural references. His drawings often feature a reoccurring assortment of figures and symbols, culled from Hollywood, fairytales, soap operas, comic books, Disney, and contemporary politics. Yet, in McCarthy’s work, these figures are perverse distortions of iconic and recognizable archetypes. The artist explores and subverts a culture of violence and toxic masculinity through hyperbole and grotesque magnification of its worst tendencies. His work skewers mass media and consumer-driven American society, often profanely, by underscoring aspects of cultural repression and forms of latent violence.
Paul McCarthy: Head Space, Drawings 1963–2019 features works on paper that incorporate and utilize a variety of mediums, including charcoal, graphite, ink, marker, and collage, as well as more unorthodox materials such as ketchup and peanut butter. A consummate and accomplished draftsperson, McCarthy approaches his daily drawing practice as a way of thinking — a blueprint for projects and a tool to flesh out complex ideas. Since the 1970s, McCarthy has also incorporated drawing into his performances, implementing it as part of an action and often drawing in character. In recent years, this role of drawing in character has become central to his large scale video performance projects, such as WS White Snow (2012-13), CSSC Coach Stage Stage Coach (2017), and NV Night Vater (2019–). The drawings produced in character for these sessions stand outside of the video performances. In a process McCarthy terms “Life Drawing, Drawing Sessions” the artist and his actors produce drawings in costume among the props and simulacrum of his film sets. These works bring together the materials and crude gestures that have been present in the artist’s work for the greater part of his career.
In conjunction with the exhibition, a related series of Hammer public programs include a conversation between Paul McCarthy and curators Aram Moshayedi and Connie Butler, as well as exhibition walkthroughs led by local artists, critics and academics. A selection of McCarthy’s videos and films will be screened in the Billy Wilder Theater through-out the run of the exhibition. Additional information about these programs can be found on hammer.ucla.edu