X-Rated Fairy Tale: Paul McCarthy at the Armory and Hauser & Wirth
Paul McCarthy: WS
June 19 to August 4, 2013
Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue, between 66th and 67th Street
New York City, 212-616-3930
Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy: Reble Dabble Babble
June 20 to July 26, 2013
Hauser & Wirth
511 West 18th Street
New York City, 212-790-3900
May 10 to July 26, 2013
Hauser & Wirth
32 East 69th Street
New York City, 212-794-4970
Stepping into Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory, currently hosting Paul McCarthy’s multimedia installation WS, feels a little like falling headfirst into a terrarium. That is, if the terrarium has vaguely pornographic, quasi-violent, and definitely not-safe-for-the-kids videos projected on its sides. WS, which stands for “White Snow,” is loosely based on the story of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” Actually, it might be more accurate to say that WS takes liberties with that story. McCarthy’s version, for example, expands the cast to include nine dwarves (some of whom appear to top six feet), three Prince Charmings (compulsive masturbators, one and all, if the video evidence is to be believed), and three Snow Whites. And then there is Walt Paul, a paternal(istic) figure, obviously evoking Walt Disney and subtly suggesting Hitler (it’s the mustache), who either presides over or is subject to the mayhem unleashed during what appears to be a fairly traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
Oh, and then there is you. Whatever else the show is about, one of its most accessible pleasures is the chance to watch other visitors observing the spectacle. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, people ringed the cavernous space, positioned around a platform holding up the half-magical, half-infernal forest that is simultaneously the show’s physical centerpiece and the set used for filming much of the screened footage. These spectators’ attention was split between the screens on either side of the forest and the faces of the other spectators. (Were cameras permitted inside, WS would likely produce some compelling YouTube reaction videos.)
A less stationary delight of the show is the chance to look around its many nooks and crannies. That forest, with its nuclear-neon foliage and flora, its scatological trees, and the three-quarters scale house concealed in its middle—a replica of McCarthy’s childhood home—demands exploration. Within the house, you will find a Christmas tree, birthday streamers, bottles of liquor in various stages of consumption, a spent container of Hershey’s chocolate syrup, and a nearly-exhausted Heinz ketchup squeeze-bottle. (The last two of these have been frequently deployed as material in McCarthy’s work.) There are also various recognizable Disney figurines scattered around the house—a Snow White with a dwarf, a Bambi, and a Prince Charming riding his horse.
The feel-good Americana of all that Disney detritus is juxtaposed with two disconcertingly accurate bodies: The artist himself and White Snow, stripped naked, apparently dead, and covered in what at first glance seems to be blood and excrement, but is actually the aforementioned ketchup and chocolate. (A series of life casts, four of Elyse Poppers, the actress playing the main White Snow in WS, and one of the artist, are currently on view at Hauser & Wirth’s uptown space.) What it all means is well nigh impossible to say. And, at seven hours, it would be difficult to absorb WS in a single seating. It is generally agreed that McCarthy confronts the falsely feel-good pieties of American myths, that he takes on viscerally recognizable symbols and upends them by splattering them with a variety of (bodily) fluids. WS, his largest installation and most ambitious project to date, unfolds with the madcap logic of dreams, and every little bit of content is overdetermined. This is a convulsive form of Surrealism, which, of course, has a certain kind of beauty. That’s the thing about McCarthy. No matter how gross his work—and this is an artist who has never shied away from the grotesque—no matter how disconcerting, how disorienting, there is nonetheless something appealing about his aesthetic, with its visual pungency and sense of humor.
McCarthy’s fairy-tale world is tethered to reality by its references to history: The artist’s childhood, with the inclusion of the house in which he was raised; art history, particularly the rise of performance art, of which McCarthy has been both a student and a teacher; American history and its embrace of kitsch and myth. Striking an odd but effective balance between authentic and contrived, WS has more in common with a reality show than lived reality. Which is to say, if “Snow White” is the partial basis of so many looking-for-love shows, then WS is the looking-for-love show amped up to absurdity.
WS confines its most pornographic bits to the periphery, with the most sexually explicit material playing in rooms off to the sides of Drill Hall. (One of these rooms is also the site of some eerily beautiful footage, tracking White Snow and Walt Paul as they wander, Adam-and-Eve-like, through their polluted Eden.) But it is the most prominent feature of McCarthy’s Rebel Dabble Babble, a collaboration with his son Damon (who also co-directed, co-produced, and cast WS) on view at Hauser & Wirth’s mammoth Chelsea gallery. The exhibit consists of a full-scale two-story house, which visitors may enter, and a facsimile of the living-room staircase from the home of Jim Stark, aka the “Rebel Without a Cause,” from the eponymous 1955 film. Around these are several video projections, most of which are quite pornographic. Disorienting and unnerving, the show is a reimagining of the psychosexual drama that was said to unfold between the film’s director Nicholas Ray and his young stars, James Dean and Natalie Wood. Like WS, Rebel Dabble Babble relies on our recognition of the building blocks of familiar American narratives. Both exhibitions undo the familiarity of those narratives, folding them over and over on themselves, until they become hallucinatory, at once a joke and something deadly serious, demanding that we tell the story ourselves.