No swashbuckling hero, McCarthy's pirate is an intimidating and wretched figure who embodies a lifestyle of danger and licentiousness on the margins of society. McCarthy transforms the body of the ship into the body of the pirate: the ribs of the ship become his ribs, windows and holes become bodily orifices, oars act as limbs, and cannons resemble penises and a nose. The phallic weaponry alludes to warfare and sexual conquest, and the various inscriptions and red spurts make clear that if amputated, the pirate would lose his power. McCarthy critiques Western stereotypes of masculinity by transforming the iconic figure of the pirate through brutal images of debauchery and castration.
Gallery label from Compass in Hand: Selections from The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection, April 22, 2009–January 4, 2010.
McCarthy’s work explores fundamental issues of human identity, from the body to social interaction. It confronts and obliterates notions of classical unity and the harmony of human proportion and form, and often questions norms of social interaction in domestic situations. In Penis Hat the pirate is not the swashbuckling hero from storybooks. Instead McCarthy portrays an intimidating and wretched pirate, emphasizing a lifestyle of danger and debauchery on the margins of society. A captain's life is his ship—or so the saying goes; here McCarthy literally transforms the body of the ship into the body of the pirate. The ribs of the ship are also his ribs, windows and holes are bodily orifices, oars signify limbs, and canons resemble penises and a nose. This penis/weapon motif alludes to both warfare and sexual conquest and exudes a potent masculinity. However, if amputation occurred, as texts at the bottom of the drawing and corresponding red spurts through the work explicitly reference, the pirate would lose his power and manliness. By transforming the iconic figure of the pirate through brutal images of debauchery and castration, in this large drawing McCarthy powerfully critiques stereotypes of masculinity.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art , p. 246.