Win McCarthy’s sculptures address the limits of what it means to be an individual within a larger whole


Win McCarthy’s sculptures address the limits of what it means to be an individual within a larger whole, in this case, New York City. They attempt to reconcile the impossible: the slippery fact of oneself against the totalising fact of the city. Early works of McCarthy’s have adopted the maquette’s structure — as an architectural draft, the maquette is a preliminary, though refined impression. McCarthy’s sculptures however, are precarious and jerry-rigged into shonky, fragile assemblages as continuous preparations on the self. His material is always vulnerable, malleable, entropic, basic: board and shelving, ladled and blown-glass, wet clay and plasticine, water and clear sheeting. Though this list recalls disembodiment and rainy vapidity, these same base structures become nests for particulars: stapled and pinned photographs, taped strips of text, cutouts of eyes, newspaper clippings — they are the granular elements of life that give time, texture.

Each maquette is a kind of map: floor plan, maze, or architectural model, which functions as topographies of an interior life, superimposed onto the city, tenement building, or bedsit. They are failed attempts at structuring time within one’s life, cartography of personal experience meets world events, poetry meets weather reports.

McCarthy’s use of calendars and timetables demonstrates this conditioning of time, revealing their failure to contain a life. His bone-coloured January ’17 calendar (Der Fuß des Künstlers) shows a photograph of the artist’s foot dominating the yellowing board surface of pencil-drawn grids, the foot ostensibly watching Obama’s speech. Hectic public events and tumultuous interiority causes consistent friction. Photos are pinned as tentative attempts of externalising memory: friends breakfasting, roller-skating; an aerial view of New York beneath a ruler; cityscapes and anonymous streets; a newspaper cartoon reading: ‘It says I’m too sensitive to handle criticism.’ The sequence of the calendar, the linearity of time within the week, month, year, undoes its efficacy — the pencilled grid too reductive for time’s whirlpool of subjectivity.

McCarthy’s success is precisely in his form’s inadequacy to contain content. Reducing something to its constituent parts does not always make it easier to understand: a template does not account for lived experience. Reducibility is a folly. As Tomas Transtromer’s writes in his poem, Answers to Letters:

‘Sometimes an abyss opens between Tuesday and Wednesday but twenty-six years may be passed in a moment. Time is not a straight line, it’s more of a labyrinth, and if you press close to the wall at the right place you can hear the hurrying steps and voices, you can hear yourself walking past there on the other side.’

Too sensitive to handle criticism; McCarthy’s use of text crystallises inner conflict as well as enhance the volatility of concurrency. A naked plasticine man perches atop a table board, to his right, a litany of ever-increasing towers are compressed together like cluttered matchsticks. He is photographed in Monday March 7th (2016) and pasted onto another partially pencilled board grid. Sticks are glued over the photograph, suggesting infrastructure either decaying or establishing above the figure. A column of text in the frame reads, in part:

‘It wasn’t so much that I was changing or growing into something different. But that I had lost all continuity with yesterday, with the entirety of my past … I had lost the pattern, the rhythm of being myself, like I had lost count! Like I had forgotten the words to the song.’ As with much of McCarthy’s text, their affect is heavy and confessional. At times a quick, slipshod tirade fizzles with the need of an addressee, at others, they are those naked revelations that knockout the mind in the middle of the street. Above this figure’s crippling melodrama, a newspaper weather report for Monday 7th March 2016 shows it’s sunny in the city.

This is McCarthy’s rendering of time. It’s all synchronous glimmers and chasms, voids on the inside or magnificent constructions on the outside, a few years versus one glowing afternoon, unremembered faces or lost anecdotes finding realisation around the corner. In his work, the world becomes particulate. Atmospheres like the big M-O-O-D of New York City or the reminiscence triggered by a friend’s name becomes granular and patchy like something airborne settling to dust, powder, shingle, sand.

When McCarthy turns to specific individuals, I am reminded that any knowledge of someone, including oneself, is only always a partial view. People are impossible. Tilt the prism, turn the kaleidoscope, and it always shifts, however softly. Blown-glass masks were hung in Mister (2017), his solo show at Silberkruppe, Berlin. These figures’ faces are the places of detail, but again, proper representation fails for they have been reduced to empty recognition. Their arrangements are echoes: Character (all 2017) sports a butterfly hairclip, while the tatty fabric of The Conversationalist implies an apt, chatty sass. Mr Reticence however, is more a padded dummy with a single pink shoelace for hair. Together they press on the boundary between being an individual to just being a person, or farther: a non-person, a figment.

Glass heads are materially fragile, in the air, in the clouds. McCarthy writes for his show, Gridlock Person (2018) at Galerie Fons Welters, Berlin, ‘Heads a desperate for pause, for reflection, for some respite, and then, reassurance. Head, fraught. Feet, not. And in between, something shaped like a cabinet.’ For Gridlock Person, McCarthy produced casts of feet in wax or glass; some socked and tagged with lost keys, though most are made awkwardly mobile with toy wheels. Some are tagged with lists of names; for McCarthy, if it is an identifier, it is an adornment. Look at your name too long and its meaning might melt away; better to understand oneself by other means. The feet are silly renditions of movement, the most unthinking thing tacked with thought: ‘You feel like a lonely tower. A lighthouse. Waving this beam around madly.’ The glass heads return, this time their torso assumes the dimension of a cabinet or shelving unit.

For Apartment Life (2019), his solo show at Svetlana, New York, McCarthy divided the space into a studio apartment. Aside from the sculptural accumulations, a series of silver gelatin prints were taped on foamboard along the wall. The implied ‘authenticity’ of the print is undermined by content, for these are people, but exposed differently: architectural models of faceless buildings are populated by little lone figures, pausing, walking. Their Saul Leiter-esque style continues with Street Scene (Friday) (all 2019), a pig napping in its muddied sty; Street Scene (Eating) documents the pig munching with a little American flag positioned top left.

Development, 2019
Bathroom mirror, glass, laser prints on adhesive vinyl, inkjet prints, tape, toothpaste,
back pain ointment, cardboard
81 x 24 x 16 inches (205.8 x 61 x 40.7 cm)
City Standing Up, 2019
Blanket, blown glass, tempered glass, butter, food containers
12 x 81 x 47 inches (30.5 x 205.8 x 119.4 cm)

When browsing the documentation for Apartment Life, the first image to introduce the show is a view from the centre of the road, looking down the street. Deflated trash bags flank the road, signage is rickety and emblazoned variously: School; Fines Higher; Laundromat — the usual. Greyand red-brick tenements; red lights like distant glitter thrown amidst wafting steam; Chinese New Year decorations are flattened in hot neon. Farther, like a cankered diamond knocked into the ground, the Financial District — the silver ruffles of the 76-story skyscraper by Frank Gehry, also known as New York by Gehry. In the distance, people make their way.

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