Thursday, March 20th, 2008

Sean McCarthy: I Think of Demons

Fredericks & Freiser
536 W 24th Street
New York City
212 633 6555

January 25 – March 1, 2008

Sean McCarthy Astaroth 2007, ink and graphite on paper, 8-½ x 7 inches. Courtesy Frederikcs & Freiser
Sean McCarthy Astaroth 2007, ink and graphite on paper, 8-½ x 7 inches. Courtesy Frederikcs & Freiser

The visual universe that Sean McCarthy has created is in a perpetual state of violence or potential violence. A quote from Hobbes’ Leviathan comes to mind, “I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” The demons in these drawings represent the eternal return of death and violence.

His inventive and mind-bogglingly exacting technical skills and more importantly his imaginative powers are on display in this exhibition. Seeing such straightforwardly creative works of visual art in a Chelsea gallery raises interesting questions about the role of invention in the contemporary art world. I was surprised to see fantastic and concisely rendered drawings that weren’t ironic or means to end within a portentous conceptual framework.

McCarthy’s chimerical hybrid creations, which include anatomical details of various animals, human genitalia and anatomy, specifically breasts and a threateningly large penis, are sphinx-like. They are mysterious and inscrutable, in that their individual characteristics undermine any symbolic reading of them. They stay rooted in the real world, but also convey a complete sense of otherness.

The demons McCarthy has invented sneer, grimace, unflinchingly stare, look world weary, give sidelong glances, and stare at us and upwards with the blank amoral expressions of non-human organic life. They are poised, dignified, self assured, and without empathy. He convinces us of their materiality but he also places them in mysterious voids, in non-specific settings that reverberate with a sense of timelessness. He plays with the process of symbolization, gaining strength from his ability to render the unreal with the fervor of a devoted realist, while making the actions of his imaginary demons vague but purposeful.

McCarthy interpreted text from the books The Goetia: The Lesser Key of Solomon the King and Colin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, which are well known in demonology circles and include descriptions of demons and drawings of their seals, as inspiration for many of the demons he invented for these ink and graphite drawings. The main source for The Goetia was a book by Johann Weyer (1515-1588), who was a pioneer in psychiatry and medicine, and also a firm believer in magic and the occult. These contradictory impulses, an interest in the superstitious and the empirical are reflected in McCarthy’s style.

Astaroth, 2007, consists of a tightly cropped portrait of the upper body of a weird creature that includes many anatomically correct segments of living creatures such as snakes, earthworms, porcupines, and humans. With McCarthy’s interpretation of very inexact physical descriptions, he took great care to represent the animal elements in exacting detail, but he also took liberties with the creature, conceptually and formally sewing together odd bits and pieces from multiple sources to create a nightmarish amalgamation. The viewer experiences the imposing nature of this creature and would not want to meet it, ever.

In Flehmen Response, 2007, whose title is defined as “a particular type of curling of the upper lip in ungulates, felids, and many other mammals, which facilitates the transfer of pheromones and other scents into the vomeronasal organ”, we see a grimacing winged zebra getting impaled by a caterpillar like spore creature. The artist has been inspired by an animal to animal interaction, which in the real world usually indicates stimulation, and in McCarthy’s world translates into violence and death. Clearly sex and death are neatly combined in this static moment of creature combat.

McCarthy’s technique is really what differentiates these masterful drawings from the typical fair one would find on heavy metal album covers or in kitschy fantasy publications. He never resorts to using shading. His drawings are built entirely upon the interaction of dots and lines. Often his lines are so compact that they are dashes, half an inch long or less. Studying the complicated surface ofAnastomosis, 2007, a drawing of a self-devouring, writhing mass of unpleasant organic textures, one is dumbstruck by the controlled and highly effective use of stippling. By carefully determining the quantity and placement of individual dots, he describes shadows and surface details and textures, and enhances the three-dimensionality of the tubular forms. Carefully placed dots are used to describe convexities and concavities. Like in other compositions in this exhibition, the viewer is not sure if these organic fragments are copulating or devouring one another.

One would have to imagine an abstract expressionist composition made with flailing swathes of body parts inspired by oceanic and insect life to picture Void, 2007. This complicated interpretation of the well known Greek symbol of the snake devouring itself in perpetuity, or the Ouroboros, is filled with a variety of meticulously rendered dentate, claws, and eyes swirling around in some numinous substance, entangled in a never-ending act of engulfment. Certainly the symbolic undertones are relevant to this day and age. In Ambergris, 2007, a drawing of a sperm whale vomiting forth a veritable maelstrom of nightmarish creatures along with its own entrails, has more to do with the scriptural Leviathan, “the symbol of evil, focal point of all human fears, embodiment of unmitigated power,” rather than the waxy substance that originates in the intestines of the sperm whale. These are drawings about evil being unleashed upon the world, about a timeless evil wielding power over the temporal world or perhaps giving birth to it.

Hieronymus Bosch must have derived some enjoyment from envisioning the unbridled power of his demons, their sadistic acts committed against condemned humans. Interestingly, McCarthy’s demons fight one another or stand poised to attack an unknown entity. The idea of the fallen, so crucial to the hierarchies in Bosch’s compositions, is entirely missing in McCarthy’s imagined realms. McCarthy synthesizes the demon and its human victim and tells us more about our world than we want to know.