Paul McCarthy is perhaps best known for his psychologically disturbing, taboo-shattering performances. Since the 1970s, McCarthy has used his own body and an expanding cast of props, from common foodstuffs suggestive of body parts and bodily fluids—hot dogs, hamburger meat, ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise—to masks and prosthetic limbs, in staged scenes of shocking sexuality and brutality. McCarthy regularly transgresses the boundary between public and private and intentionally provokes discomfort and even revulsion on the part of his viewers in order to probe the sinister underside of American society. The center of his focus in this regard has been the family; in performances that mine children's television and appropriate characters such as Pinocchio and Heidi, McCarthy regularly examines how children are socially conditioned by parents as well as the mass media, and suggests dysfunction and violence bubbling beneath happy surfaces presented by popular culture.
In the early 1990s McCarthy began to regularly create static figurative sculptures independent from his performances. Figures in stuffed animal costumes engaged in sexual acts and grotesque personages such as Spaghetti Man (1993)—a full-size rabbit-headed action figure with a freakishly long, flaccid phallus that coils on the floor—continued McCarthy's strategy of merging themes of childhood innocence and adult perversion. The Guggenheim Museum's Michael Jackson (Fucked Up), Silicon (2001), reveals McCarthy's ongoing engagement with popular culture as well as art-historical narratives. The sculpture is one of a series of take-offs that McCarthy has created from Jeff Koons's iconic sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988). While Koons's flawless porcelain depiction of the pop superstar and his simian sidekick was a celebration of fame and the highly stylized mechanisms used to generate such celebrity, McCarthy's first spin-off, made in 1999, presented a mutant portrait with cartoonish large heads and feet. In the more recent Guggenheim version, the proportions have become even more distorted and the features more abstracted; the entire piece is executed in a strategically careless, rough-hewn manner. In place of Koons's saccharine kitsch figurine, McCarthy's sculpture suggests the darker connotations of Jackson's fame, namely, the allegations of child molestation that played out in the media and the courtroom.