Over the holidays, I took a friend to see Cathy McClure‘s fabulous, funny and grim show at CoCA, Dispossessed. It was my second time there, and I had been delighted by the first trip, but my overall opinion about the show was yet unformed. My friend is a mathematician and engineer, and he was immediately charmed by McClure’s butchered animatronic toys, which she has reduced to flayed chunks of plastic spouting tinny coos and song lyrics. His word for the displays of stuffed animal “skins and guts” smashed behind plexiglass: cathartic.
His wheels were turning almost as visibly as those of the toys themselves. He decided to hunt down a toy to make his own animated grotesque for his family Christmas gift exchange. (My kind of family.) We found two animatronic Santas at the Goodwill Outlet, and he carefully stripped one to wiry limbs and plump body. (Weirdly, Santa’s body was a repurposed baby doll torso.) And then he realized…he had no idea what to do next.
Ghosts of Consumption Past
The presumption that work made with found objects is easy is false. One needs a vision as much as a plan, and McClure’s vision of undead creatures of creature comfort is fully formed. In some cases, McClure doesn’t much alter the little bots beneath the plush skins besides gilding them subtly with gold foil, and the simplicity of that gesture is sufficient.
Lacking an index of all the disposable kitsch out there (past and present), but burning with curiosity, I went down a YouTube rabbit hole to see what some of these figures might have been before McClure flayed them. It was hard to imagine that somewhere, someone had created a nearly paralytic bear that swung an umbrella and tapped one foot to “Singing in the Rain.” And yet, not only does such a bear exist, there is also a dog and two frogs out there built over the same mechanism.
In the “animated critter” genre of YouTube videos, one will find: twerking holiday decorations; three versions of the same mad cow mechanism; and Justin Beaver. It’s hard to believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds when there is demand for cheap thrills whose plastic corpses will be polluting the oceans long after we’re dead. That’s not the future we were promised, and these bots are part of the lie. McClure’s work reminds us that we are still being duped through with an uncanny tension between sentimentality and waste.
One may well giggle at the absurdity on display, but to giggle ironically because kitsch has been desecrated is to miss the point—or to whistle past the graveyard.
“The State of the Union”
The piece “State of the Union,” comprising ten cymbal-clanging monkeys, is a slight exception to this uncanny character. The monkeys are individually marred and partially dismembered, but they are still very clearly monkeys. They have a much more vintage look, and so their broken-state looks almost like a matter of course rather than something intentional.
More importantly, the effect of the piece treads into a different political and social commentary from the other works, one that still relates to the betrayal of a promised future. It’s simple enough in execution: The more critters are activated, the more cacophonous it all becomes. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Do we need another artwork to describe the ways in which our political dialog has become nationally? Perhaps not, but I haven’t seen one quite so funny and on the nose. For indeed, so much of the rhetoric is automatic, reactionary, meaningless, noisy, circular, inane, childish. McClure’s “State of the Union” doesn’t point out the material and social causes of this broken discourse (which are many), but it gets one looking for them.
As an aside, the CoCA gallery has consistently show some of the smartest art with a political bent in the city since it opened in the summer of 2016. Highlights include: Christine Babic‘s When She Dies You Too Will Die, Robert Ernst Marx‘s Considering the Voluntary Absence of God, and the riotous and mordant Spontaneous Combustion by Peter Christenson and Phillip Mudd. These examples more explicitly dealt with power, oppression and hegemony. McClure’s little install isn’t quite so severe, but its message isn’t less urgent. See it before it closes January 13. More info on the website.