Dan McCarthy : Land With No Sign
Nick Stillman

A contortionist deckhand glides through a spotlit cabaret, his hands and smile
the burning red of the carelessly guilty. Man and woman share a turquoise
stage of beach at daybreak. He poses contrapposto with a surfboard. She lofts
a Japanese umbrella, balances on tiptoe, and rides the sand beneath her flip-
flops. A woman frozen in a field of nothing waits silently on hands and knees.
A puddle of red, white, and blue camouflage for skin, her stoned eyes lock
on something behind you, beyond you. Soaring rainbows bleed pastel yolks.
Bodies coil in crouches. Surfers hold waves. People hoist fish. Characters pose
like limpid statues within landscapes, extreme weather systems, and frenzied
patterns mostly lacking objects. These forms, situations, and characters are a
few of many appearing again and again in Dan McCarthy’s paintings. Stubborn
repetition can beget stale dogma, but it’d be a reach to cite any specific credo
that dictates McCarthy’s imagery. This, as another painter has already noted, is
a “land with no sign.”

Philip Taaffe’s haiku for McCarthy’s 1993 painting South China Sea:
"Letters on walrus, South China Sea
yellow pink dusk
land with no sign
In McCarthy, Dan. Dan McCarthy: Paintings, Drawings 1992-1994
(Anton Kern Gallery, 2003) (Not paginated).

Vladimir Nabokov, [Reads better without the “an”] advocate of “pure”
imagination as the only respectable inspiration for artmaking, wrote,

“It is strange, the morbid inclination we have to derive satisfaction from the
fact (generally false and always irrelevant) that a work of art is traceable to
a ‘true story.’ Is it because we begin to respect ourselves more when we
learn that the writer, just like ourselves, was not clever enough to make
up a story himself? Or is it something added to the poor strength of our
imagination when we know that a tangible fact is at the base of the ‘fiction’
we mysteriously despise?”

Nabokov, Vladimir. Nikolai Gogol (New Directions, 1961), pg. 40.

So much current art bombards with signs skimmed from a world we know and
see and live, an overexposure ostensibly mirroring our surfeit of consumer,
media, and entertainment possibilities. The arc of McCarthy’s work since he
began exhibiting in the early 1990s has been an exercise in scaling back, of
purging his imagery of all manifestations of material surplus and eschewing the
digital era’s inexhaustible catalogue of imagery. His deviant “copies” from models
distort their proportions and smear their faces with clownish-whorish smudges.
His landscapes, whether sublime or apocalyptic, are defiantly otherworldly.
Where are the objects—consumer products—so endemic to an American
lifestyle? In McCarthy’s paintings, the only “things” not of the natural world to
appear with any regularity are makeup, flip-flops, surfboards, skateboards,
snowboards, and the accompanying gear appropriate for each extreme sport.

The environs McCarthy’s paintings distortedly mirror are mostly southern
Californian, * sometimes Huntington Beach—McCarthy’s hometown and the
place that has officially trademarked itself Surf City USA. “I grew up in southern
California in the 1960s to the 1980s,” McCarthy says. “From the Beach Boys to
the Germs. The beach was it… still is.” ** California’s honeyed mystique bloomed
in the 1960s and on into the 1970s while the cultural capital of the east, New
York City, sank into economic depression and social chaos. Legends of the
Golden State’s sun, sand, and bodies made it the mythical endpoint for road-
tripping Americans. This was a national image America could export. And history
shows that it sold. Peter Dixon’s vaguely technical and always totally stoked The
Complete Book of Surfing describes how by 1965 surfing had become a new
hallmark of Americana, joining the requisite cowboys, mountains, and sunsets
as an advertising gimmick to evoke the good life. *** It was cool, a little sexual, and
whispered promises of transcendence. Inevitably, the culture spawned a specific
form of reverb-drenched surf music. Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys ruled this
scene on the popular level, their breezy glorifications of California beach ethos
the aural equivalent of the Luminists, whose oversized paintings propagandized
America’s resplendent 19th-century landscapes. California had hip slang,
better pot, and was a haven for ambassadors from two marginalized groups of
romanticized American dissidents: hippies and surfers.

*There are also several alpine scenes, a few of which show Swiss flags or include the word “Switzerland” in the title.
** Author interview with the artist, June 2007.
*** Dixon, Peter. The Complete Book of Surfing (Ballantine, 1965), pg.20
Dixon’s surfer prose is worth quoting here: “The image of surfing is used to sell everything from autos to soft drinks to instant-dry-non-fat-low-cal-good-for-mothers-and-surfers powdered milk.” Cowboys, mountains, and sunsets happen to be the titles of the three sections forming artist Richard Prince’s 1983 novel Why I Go to the Movies Alone. Prince, like McCarthy, mines the mythic America of popular imagination, and while this essay isn’t the space to do it, there are affinities between Prince and McCarthy’s work would reward further investigation.

The frenzy of uncritical idealization can seriously fuck up a good thing. Artist Mike
Kelley, writing on Paul Thek’s 1967 installation Death of a Hippie, a wax hippie
corpse rotting inside his dank, claustrophobic environment: “[It] is Manson, is the
Altamont Hell’s Angel; the degraded end of hippie utopianism and the beginning
of the notion of hippie as criminal burnout.”* Hippies, Kelly continues, became
a “cartoon of American otherness” when popular context divorced them from
their ideology of negating and disrespecting bourgeois values. What was left
was the waste product of hippie style, an easy target for their reduction to, as
Kelley correctly calls it, caricatures. Nabokov, in his biography of Nikolai Gogol,
invokes the author’s play with poshlost, Russian for something close to, but not
exactly kitsch: “A kind of satellite shadow world in the actual existence of which
neither sellers nor buyers really believe.” ** Poshlost: this is the territory occupied
by the modern hippie, the post-hippie-era hippie, whose ethos can be pegged as
historically frozen in a moment some 40 years distant. But its endurance is proof
of the timeless temptation of freedom from modern life’s vulgarity. The hippie
remains a potent archetype (albeit an almost exclusively white and/or middle
class one) encompassing those who renounce normative work and voting habits,
style, and opinions on “family values.” Poshlost dwells in this conflicted space
between revered and ridiculous, tired but timeless tropes. Like sun, sand, and
girls in bikinis.

* Kelley, Mike. Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism, “Death and Transfiguration”
(MIT Press, 2003), pg. 144.
** Nabokov, Vladimir. Nikolai Gogol (New Directions, 1961), pg. 67.

“Are these for real”? The question hangs in an invisible thought bubble over
McCarthy’s paintings. Put another way, McCarthy’s attitude toward his own
imagery isn’t discernibly positive or negative, sincere or ironic. His people are too
statuesque, too completely iconic, to be quite human. They constantly revert to
a repeated repertoire of poses. Many tote surfboards or balance as if negotiating
invisible waves. Rainbows stream through skies, some crystalline and serene,
others filthy and toxic. A vague notion of transcendence, of “the ultimate,” is
everywhere in these paintings—the rainbows, the silent snowy mountains, the
bathing suit-clad beauties. But the idyllic is compromised, not quite as good as
its rumored promises. Faces are rife with imperfections. Makeup is slapped on
vulgarly. Metallic silver washes of paint pollute an epic landscape. Characters’
skin is freaked with acid stains. In McCarthy’s paintings there is poshlost and
there is also its infection.

Willem de Kooning’s paintings famously laced epic with vulgar, but McCarthy’s
primary models extend further back than AbEx, specifically to Edvard Munch,
Henri Rousseau, and Pablo Picasso. Especially in his early paintings, McCarthy’s
color treatments evoke Munch’s; his 1993 painting Harvest even seems to
reference the same tortured seascape of The Scream. But the primary thing
McCarthy gleaned from Munch is texture—or rather, its lack. McCarthy cites the
radical flatness of Munch’s canvases as revelatory. “Munch’s paintings are so flat
that when viewed from the side there is little or no texture whatsoever… [Texture]
was something to be avoided as it detracted from the immediacy of the subject,
an unnecessary barrier that made the experience of both painting and viewing
illegitimate.” * By layering coat after coat of gesso onto his canvases, McCarthy
crafts a perfectly smooth surface to accommodate the effects he executes with
almost no paint at all. Sometimes paint is applied quickly and allowed to bleed
over the smooth surface; sometimes it’s left to congeal in little pools; sometimes
it’s blotted with newspaper. Descending hazes of washy color slide down the
face of canvases in ribbons of Technicolor pollution. Recently, McCarthy has
taken effects previously used for atmosphere or landscape and transposed them
onto the skin of characters painted against blank white backgrounds, whose
traumatized blotches of rotting, phosphorescent skin mimic weather’s chance

* Gingeras, Alison. “Dan McCarthy: The Silver Surfer.”
Included with press materials for McCarthy’s 2005 exhibition at Anton Kern Gallery, New York.

McCarthy has described himself as a “psychological painter.” Some of this is
accomplished through the chromatic drama and washy effects that come with
using thin paint, but just as much stems from his distortions of scale and
perception, his invasion of Picasso and Rousseau’s territory.
McCarthy’s “dreamy, goofy, and naughty” iconography led one reviewer to pan
his paintings as “professionally contrived,” the implication being that their
weirdness was a put-on, that they weren’t believably weird. * Rousseau was
almost universally disparaged by critics for the opposite reason: his paintings’
blundering amateurishness. In truth, any “outsider” qualities read into
Rousseau’s paintings are undermined by his writings, in which he clearly
explains that his late, fantasist style was a slowly acquired process; he even
coyly mentions “maintaining his naiveté.” ** One so conscious of his naiveté isn’t
naïve in the least. Rousseau, in his most interesting work, was inventing image-
constructions. His jungle and overseas military scenes belong to a world he
never experienced. Leo Steinberg’s argument that “Most [art] is dedicated
precisely to the imitations of nature, the likeness-catching to the portrayal of
objects and situations—in short, to representation,” is still true, but Rousseau’s
steroidal flora and impossible treatments of natural light are a perverse
interpretation of “representation.” ***

* Johnson, Ken. New York Times, June 20, 2003.
Arts and Leisure section, Weblink
** Lanchner, Carolyn and William Rubin. “Henri Rousseau and Modernism,” in Henri Rousseau
(Museum of Modern Art, 1984), pg. 35.
*** Steinberg, Leo. “The Eye Is a Part of the Mind,” in Other Criteria
(Oxford University Press, 1972), pg. 291.

T.J. Clark, discussing a photo Picasso snapped of a group of his own 1912
paintings, wrote that Picasso was perched on a frontier, “…and not just painting,
by the looks of it, but picturing in general; and not just picturing but maybe
perceiving; and not just perceiving but maybe being-in-the-world.” * This is the
language of Modernism, of art as a conduit to a higher plane of consciousness
and awareness. Clark’s point is that Picasso’s interpretations of vision and
structure kicked open a door of possibility, one that Rousseau (whose work
Picasso loved and owned) had cracked. Whereas his peers and predecessors
bent reality, Picasso’s project was to reinvent it while unmasking it as constructed
and subjective. Then, just after sufficiently fracturing all perceptual logic with
Analytical Cubism, Picasso abruptly returned to figurative painting. McCarthy’s
quietly misproportioned figures (often with very short legs or heads much too
large or small for the body) echo the proportional play evident during Picasso’s
Neoclassical period, which occupied him from the mid-1920s through the early
1930s. The enduring impression given by Picasso’s Neoclassical work is the
heaviness of the figures; they’re more statues than people.

* Clark, T.J. “Cubism and Collectivity,” in Farewell to an Idea:
Episodes from a History of Modernism (Yale University Press, 1999), pg. 174.

From the work included in his 2003 show at Anton Kern Gallery until now,
McCarthy’s figures have become discernibly more statuesque. Knees bent, the
torso hunched over with its weight on the hands, as they grip the knees. Hands
held over head, both knees bent. Holding a large fish aloft. McCarthy’s people
constantly repeat physical situations; they’re models, eternally holding repetitive
poses, and this repetition is what makes them convincing statues. There’s
nothing spontaneous about these postures, so many of which seem derived from
stances assumed on surfboards and skateboards. These are people conscious
of our scrutiny, conscious of their status as performers. Statues are idealizations,
and so are the characters in McCarthy’s paintings, especially the women, who
easily outnumber men. Since 2005, McCarthy’s women are almost invariably
nude or dressed only in bathing suits. * They casually kill time, avoid eye contact,
and confidently expose their bodies. McCarthy says they are based on an
accepted Western cultural ideal of feminine physicality: the 25-year-old. “Women
should never age beyond 25,” Michel Subor’s character Bruno Forestier opines
in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Le Petit Soldat. According to conventional
wisdom it’s all downhill after 25, but that doesn’t stop advertisers from incessant
summertime prattle urging women to chisel themselves into their “bathing suit
body.” Bodies and the poses they strike are a form of non-verbal communication,
part of the human mating ritual. As if channeling one of McCarthy’s female
figures, a J. Crew bikini model photographed in this summer’s catalogue flaunts
a top nearly identical in shape to those McCarthy’s women wear. She’s not just
selling a bikini, she’s selling a lifestyle fueled by an imagined communion with
nature: of course, she sits on a surfboard.

*A few women wear burkas or nuns’ habits.

The observation of nature is a constant in McCarthy’s paintings. Mountains,
underwater views, and ubiquitous beach scenes describe the majority of his
work since the early 1990s. In 2006 McCarthy made a series of winter scenes
seeming to take place at the crest of a mountain, the summit of a hike. The
colors of the snowy landscapes—scarlet, cerulean blue, pink—are some of
McCarthy’s most surreal, and yet the characters’ activities are his most banal.
They pose frontally, ostensibly acknowledging the presence of the unseen
painter or cameraperson. They jab triumphant fingers skyward. They affect
stylized postures with the tools of their hobby. They grimace heroically under
silver moons. Having reached a plateau, McCarthy’s hikers do exactly what is
expected of them. Conscious of being watched, they obediently perform the
least creative action conceivable. McCarthy had previously used streaks and
jabs of paint to communicate an ambiguous but palpably looming negativity.
In the winter paintings he communicates the same through the characters’
adherence to the generic. Shortly after completing this series, McCarthy deleted
the landscapes and backgrounds entirely; the resultant “white paintings” are even
more freezing, arguably his bleakest work yet.

No nature and much less frequent communion between people. Two of
McCarthy’s trademarks are reduced or diminished in the white paintings. The
protagonists are almost exclusively women alone in an empty netherworld. When
joined by men, both characters appear so statuesque as to be monuments to the
once-human. The same cerulean blue McCarthy used for his winter landscapes
frosts the bodies of these inaccessible cyborgs and their superior and stoned
gazes. Dropped into a glaring spotlight, they become billboards with exposed,
color-coded skin, not quite human. Ana Karinas from Alphaville. It would be a
stretch to argue that a concrete politics is espoused in McCarthy’s work, but
the white paintings come closest to a sustained political gesture. Most obvious
is the characters’ skin color: America’s national colors are bluntly evoked. The
removal of landscape contains specifically American political implications. Kyoto
Protocol, an earlier painting and McCarthy’s most specifically political image
preceding the white pieces, is a nighttime scene of a woman on the water in a
small fishing boat. Against a snowcapped backdrop of mountains flying Japanese
and Swiss flags, she gestures to the sky, apparently pleading. America’s non-
ratification of the international Kyoto Protocol and the Bush administration’s
brazen refusal to admit the facts of global warming seem the likely referents.
There’s impending danger in images like Kyoto Protocol and two dramatic
paintings of icebergs emerging from an oceanic horizon, the latter of which could
be read as references to the rapid melting of icecaps and the corresponding
rise in sea levels. In the wake of paintings like these, the wholesale removal of
natural landscape makes the white paintings the stage of disaster’s aftermath.
The washy paint effects used for a sky’s reflective nimbus or an ocean’s silver
glare have been transported to the body as repulsively damaged skin. Whatever
sexuality is initially communicated by these figures’ nudity unravels and is
revealed as a decoy. These alien, almost grotesque women are alone and
vulnerable under a hot spotlight. “Front and center. Red, white, and blue.” *
“I thought the white would make things really clear… and undeniable,” McCarthy
said of his decision to eliminate landscape. * Objects of mass production have
always been nearly nonexistent in McCarthy’s paintings. The white paintings
initiate a new level of removal: viewers are denied a context with which to judge
the situation. The world as we know it, see it, and are trained to deconstruct it
is junked and isn’t replaced. In making this new work, McCarthy first sketches
a model with pencil onto a gessoed canvas before filling in the drawing with
thin washes of very wet paint. The process is a self-imposed restraining order;
the white paintings are a study of economy and wastelessness, a distinctly un-
American technique.

* Author interview with the artist, June 2007.

It’s important to keep in mind Taaffe’s “land with no sign” phrase and it’s
relationship to McCarthy’s paintings. His work resists instant gratification.
There is no clear “message.” No discernible advocacy. Except this: Keep
looking. Continue decoding what you see on a daily basis, because reality is
the construction of those inclined to invent it themselves. A painter rendering
rainbows, placid beach landscapes, portraits, and practitioners of extreme sports
might initially seem to be wallowing in poshlost. But who determines what’s
considered hackneyed? If in 2007, extreme sports are considered passé, isn’t
this the product of their commodification and elevation by corporations? If the
ecstasy of surfing has become a trope, isn’t this because advertising agencies
appropriate what’s “extreme” or “alternative” and present it in a palatable,
saleable package, draining it of all oppositional significance? In describing
poshlost I used the example of the modern hippie in part because McCarthy has
painted post-hippie burnouts and also to show how the reduction of anything to
a stereotype is contextually determined. I believe this is what McCarthy means
when he says, “Through confronting the standard gaze we get past the banal
and toward a clearer perception.” * This involves the extrication of the self from
an identity determined by brands. Assuming that the beautiful 25 year-olds who
populate McCarthy’s paintings are an evocation of society’s sexualized “standard
gaze,” he confronts this most articulately with the individual women in his white
paintings who hold up mirrors with disembodied faces reflected in them. Are the
reflections (often homely, not necessarily young, sometimes deformed) the actual
visages of these women? Some women hold the mirrors over their faces; others
hold bags over their heads, masking themselves. Appearance is artifice. What
we see—what is sold—is the mask, the show. Nabokov describes the idea with
perfect accuracy: “All reality is a mask.” **

* Author interview with the artist, June 2007.
** Nabokov, Vladimir. Nikolai Gogol (New Directions, 1961), pg. 148.

Nick Stillman is an artist and a writer.
McCarthy included five paintings in the exhibition Silicone Valley, which Stillman curated at P.S.1 Institute of Contemporary Art in 2007