New Art From London, by Chris Townsend, published by Thames & Hudson, 2006

...What really happened to utopia is perhaps the central subject of the young Irish artist Caroline McCarthy’s oeuvre. Her concerns are the popular imagination of landscape and nature and the synthetic manner of our engagement with it, and the distortion of utopian projects and ideals into commodities. In some senses McCarthy (b. 1971) is an artist adapting and appropriating traditional modernist strategies: those of appropriation and collage. Her materials are not, however, the artefacts of popular culture like magazines and newspapers that modernists such as Kurt Schwitters, John Heartfield or Ray Johnson chose; they are far more mundane than that. McCarthy uses food packaging, in particular the cartons that contain ready-meals. [Fig. 70] This packaging is almost utterly generic, as a quick visit to any supermarket, or perhaps a look inside your fridge will confirm. The back of the thin card sleeve will carry cooking instructions; the front will bear a idealised photograph of the cooked meal and, since such ready-meals are almost universally “classics” of distinctive national or regional cookery, there will be some kind of visual symbol of generalised ethnicity or location alongside it. A spaghetti dish might have somewhere an image of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a curry the Taj Mahal, a boeuf bourgoinion the Eiffel Tower.

Despite the fact that we never notice such packaging, even as we buy, and probably don’t even look at the cooking instructions, these cartons are overwhelmingly familiar to us. Despite the fact that they are so utterly disposable, despite our fleeting encounter with them, these cartons are “designed”. The achieving of a particular appearance helps support teams of researchers, food photographers and graphic artists, as well as brand managers engaged in a constant process of appraisal and redesign. Such cartons bear witness to that ineluctable press of design upon us to which I have already referred in Chapter 2. But they also seem to support what Fredric Jameson has asserted:

The very sphere of culture itself has expanded, becoming coterminous with market society in such a way that the cultural is no longer limited to its earlier, traditional or experimental forms, but is consumed throughout daily life itself, in shopping, in professional activities, in…various…forms of leisure, in production for the market and in the consumption of those market products, indeed in the most secret folds and corners of the quotidian. Social space is now completely saturated with the culture of the image… [12]

Jameson’s less than sanguine vision of modern life would suggest firstly that if you are “an artist” your “art” is more than likely directed towards the production of everyday products – you are a food photographer or graphic designer of food cartons. Secondly, it would suggest that Jameson’s ‘closed space of the aesthetic’ [13] creates a problem for artists who would use appropriated everyday materials as modernists did. There is no longer, seemingly, a separate cultural register called art to which the everyday can be elevated and transformed. We have already seen how Shahin Afrassiabi manages to escape this dilemma by refusals of design and nostalgia; a similar problem confronts McCarthy. If the ‘post-modern’ artists of the early 1970s turned to advertising, fashion and the feature film as resource, without rearticulating the syntactical forms of mass culture as modernists had done, and thereby ceding art’s responsibility to express itself through its distinctive critical languages, isn’t she, in turning to this ‘most secret corner’ of the quotidian as source and subject, doing much the same thing? Hasn’t McCarthy noticed that the gap between art and life no longer exists, or is she, like those artists of postmodernity, acting naïvely or in bad faith?

There is a degree to which McCarthy still adheres to a fundamentally modernist principle of collage and assemblage, at least as Dada artists used it: that the nomination of the everyday in the place of art makes visible the ideological inscriptions borne, however covertly, by its objects. This is most obvious in the 1930s photo-collages of Heartfield or Hannah Hoch, but it is also vital to the work of post-war collagists like Wallace Berman. What McCarthy does with her cartons is to extract detail from them by turning them into visible objects, and particularly by making them into extraordinary, composite landscapes and architecture. Each of those generic photographs will be elaborated in some way, making the meal into an exaggerated promise of experience – even if we know it’s just a ready meal, something utterly prosaic. There may be gleaming cutlery, a glass of wine; certainly the meal itself will be garnished with a clearly visible herb, perhaps a sprig of parsley or basil leaves. [Fig 71] It is this tiny, irrelevant sign that is the hyperbolising mark; it removes the meal from your kitchen, your microwave, and transports it into a restaurant, a restaurant that is, by association with the tropes of ethnicity and the exotic spaces of tourism the pack also bears, somewhere other than here. (After all, when did you last garnish a meal?) McCarthy takes this barely visible figure of nature and glamour, cuts round it, and lifts it so that the pack becomes a surface from which it springs.

Seen together, with these small shoots of cardboard nature rising from architectural slabs, McCarthy seems to create a forest or a garden. [Fig. 72] Certainly what we see is a debased mimesis of nature arising from a system of signs that communicate for a purely commercial purpose – that have no other intended function as sign. McCarthy’s fragile saplings bring out the latent meaning in those signs that design would seek to close; she shows us how the designation of the sign by the designer relies upon stereotyped cultural imaginations of both the natural and the exotic. These food products are about as distant from “nature” and the “exotic” as you can get; assembled from a multitude of ingredients in a sterile factory in Lincolnshire or West London by cut-price labour and machinery in a matter of seconds. Any connection with the countryside is almost tangential; the labour of love, or at least application of technical mastery, that we fondly imagine is restaurant cooking is wholly absent; what really matters in the product is the “added value” realised for its manufacturer and retailer through the application of cheap labour in the name of convenience. That, at least in part, is the ideological inscription carried by food packaging which McCarthy exposes.

But McCarthy’s work is not simply about the latency of signs, rather it is concerned with how we understand them – and this is how she evades any charge of innocence or irrelevance. Where a Dadaist would have been content (as if a Dadaist could ever be “content”) with that exposure of alternative meaning, McCarthy wants us to understand how one sign works upon us, and how changes to that sign may change not just “meaning” but our perception. In doing this she not only begins a critique of the process of design – the designation of the sign – she returns, by a rather unexpected route, to that subject for art which so concerned artists of the post-minimalist generation – the phenomenological relation of subject and object.

McCarthy remarks of her work that:

At heart I am interested in the way a veneer of colour or an image (such as a garnish or picture of the Eiffel Tower) applied to a thing can change our perception of it. I began by painting familiar objects so that they looked like high-end objects of desire, and it was a consequence of that that I became interested in other forms of packaging. I wanted to know how it was we understood an image of a landscape in the same way we “understand” a milk carton. [14]

Silver-coated with Humbrol enamel, McCarthy’s humble plastic bottles and boxes assumed the allure of “designer packaging” – those disposable wrappings of luxury goods that, despite their complete disposability, make the completely frivolous completely necessary, or of expensive electrical goods – so that containers for toilet cleaner or fabric conditioner started to look like video cameras. [Fig. 73] Here she was, perhaps, exploring the same terrain as the Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury, who in the early 1990s made installations out of shopping bags from designer stores, with the wrapped, luxury product, still inside. But there is a certain inadequacy about these transformed objects, just as there is a marvellous bathos about a garden made out of cardboard parsley. It is this incompetency of the sign as fetish that exposes the sophisticated and expensive mechanisms whereby an object or a sign is convincingly transformed. Veneers between the object and the subject, the concealment of the gap between authentic experience and debased simulacrum, between aspiration and realisation, aren’t cheap – you have to pay those brand managers, food-photographers and graphic artists. Or rather, they don’t look cheap unless they are made to look that way by the artist’s intervention in what Mark Hutchinson – discussing Souvenirs (Blue) and Golden Wonder, 1998, [Fig. 74] where McCarthy juxtaposed silhouettes of swimming pools cut from holiday brochures with similarly shaped potato crisps, mounted as if they were sculptures - astutely describes as ‘a mutual embarrassment of display’. [15]

The exposure of such voids had been central to McCarthy’s work since her video Making Something Beautiful, 1997, in which she seemed at first to be playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, in C# minor (op. 27, no. 2). But the video only showed the artist’s head and upper body, never her hands upon the keyboard, and the movements of the body eventually revealed a discrepancy between “performer” and performance. First with the elevation of mundane objects to the status of spurious luxury commodities, and then with the food-landscapes, McCarthy set about illustrating how we are induced to read signs in a particular way, and how those signs may be changed in pursuit of what Adorno, discussing fashion and modernity, called ‘the ceaseless repetition of the new’. [16] This was not, then, work that simply dealt with ideological inscription, as an early 20th century modernist might, but one which - recognising the impossibility of transplanting the sign from the everyday to a separate sphere of art – instead exposed the processes by which that gap had been closed. McCarthy did not make her collages and assemblages into straightforwardly critical objects but instead, at the same time, made visible the act of design, the appropriation of “art” as veneer, by which modern mass-culture encloses and neuters art’s critical vision of modernity. ...