Nick Hackworth

Paul McCarthy LaLa Land, Whitechapel Gallery

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

At 60, Paul McCarthy might be an elder statesmen of contemporary American art but his work, as ever, takes the mantle of respectability and defecates on it.

In his biggest European show to date, we are treated to a mini- retrospective dating from the Seventies onwards, and a vast body of recent work themed around the pirate — inspired initially by the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyworld.

Subverting cultural stereotypes is standard McCarthy strategy, cowboys and Santa Claus being two other victims of his videoed absurdly theatrical performances that rapidly descend into orgies of simulated violence and profanity.

One memorable image is of Santa Claus shitting into the mouths of his elf helpers (it is actually chocolate sauce, employed by McCarthy along with ketchup and HP sauce to mimic bodily fluids).

In the Whitechapel’s ground floor gallery hang crude expressionistic drawings and sculptures about pirates as the personification of aggression in wars, and colonialism, thereby poking two fingers up at US foreign policy. The head-and-shoulder busts of pirate figures here are comically modelled and sport penises sprouting from eye sockets and noses, so extending the metaphor to the level of normal life, exposing the violence inherent in everyday social interactions.

Meanwhile, in a huge warehouse just off Brick Lane is the highlight of the show — three huge ships of sorts. One is a vast, strange abstracted machine; another explores the freedom afforded by the sea to the super-rich on their super-yachts, but the best is a huge frigate, used by McCarthy for a related performance. Its floor is sticky with the residue of ketchup and HP sauce, evocative, provocative, nutritious and tasty.

Until 8 January (020 7522 7880)