The American Fairy Tale, Fun House Style
‘Paul McCarthy: WS’ Turns a Magic Mirror on Excess
Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
Published: June 27, 2013
Of all the disagreeable species of humanlike beings Jonathan Swift invented in “Gulliver’s Travels,” the Yahoos are the worst and most human of all. Island-dwelling bipeds, they are lewd, lying, dirty, territorial and aggressive. They copulate in public, speak in shrieks and moans and kill for valueless baubles. They eat to excrete; when on the attack, they use excrement as a weapon.
Paul McCarthy’s film-and-sculpture installation, “WS,” which fills the immense drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory, is basically a Yahoo epic, its satire framed in the language of Disney, Duchamp, 1950s suburbia, 21st-century greed and Craigslist pornography. The piece is grand and gross, with ambushing flashes of beauty and an X rating.
It’s also the larger of two McCarthy spectacles in town this summer, the other being “Rebel Dabble Babble” at the cavernous Hauser & Wirth space in Chelsea. The ostensible theme of the Chelsea show, the making of the 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause,” is specific. But as with “WS,” the real subject is moral dysfunction played out on a cinematic scale.
Mr. McCarthy, who was born into a liberal Mormon family in Salt Lake City in 1945, has lived and worked in and around Los Angeles since 1970. While his reputation has long been high among artists, until a decade or so ago his career was largely a West Coast phenomenon. And even there, museums and galleries didn’t know what to do with him.
Like many other California artists who came of age around 1960, he was attracted to the materially messy, psychologically fraught side of Abstract Expressionism, which he transmuted into performances. Alone or in front of small audiences or on video, he chainsawed furniture, painted with his penis, slathered himself with ketchup and made love to a lump of ground beef.
In the early 1980s he added masks and costumes to his repertory. He cooked up the persona of a demented Santa. He did obscene riffs on children’s book characters, like Heidi and Pinocchio. Using mechanized mannequins, he turned the Wild West, long a staple of America’s televised identity, into a vaudeville of exploitative sex. Long before the abject body became a dominant theme of art in the 1990s, Mr. McCarthy was on the case, presenting the human form as a gaseous, leaky container, and gender as a fluid condition. Just as his anarchic early art had made psychological sense during the Vietnam War years, his later work, with its direct assault on American normality, fit the emotional chaos of the AIDS era. While rarely referring to specific political issues, this was still intensely political art.
It was so intense that no one bought it, so for years he supported his family by doing pickup work in construction and photography that sometimes brought him into Los Angeles film studios. Hollywood and the mechanics of film fantasy are a primary source of his art. This is particularly true of the recent works that tend to be big-budget projects, now that the market has finally discovered him.
The Armory installation, his biggest so far, is a compendium of signature ingredients: violence, humor, sex, impotence, appetite, degradation, art history, politics and pop culture. The piece is based on two intersecting elements: the 1937 Disney animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and the suburban home of Mr. McCarthy’s childhood.
But like the installation’s title — “WS” stands for White Snow — everything is in a disordered version of an original form. On an islandlike platform in the center of the Armory, Mr. McCarthy has constructed a three-quarters-scale facsimile of the facade of his childhood ranch house in Utah and set it, inaccessibly, in a kind of dank rain forest of plastic trees and fake flowers.
The rest of the house is set up outside the forest and is approachable, with cutaway walls and windows. But while its rooms are precise in their period décor, they are strewn with refuse, splattered with dark fluids and unoccupied except for the nude bodies of a man and a woman, apparent victims of torture and murder.
A seven-hour film shot both inside the house and in the forest is projected onto screens on the drill hall walls and elsewhere. It’s a thing of many components, among them the story of Snow White, as told by Disney. The beginning of the McCarthy reimagining adheres fairly closely to the animation, with Snow White wandering out of the forest and into the house of the dwarfs, who discover her napping there.
There are, however, some stark differences. This Snow White (played by the actress Elyse Poppers) sleeps in the buff and, once awake, poses like an odalisque. The dwarfs — nine in this telling — are a mangy, misshapen, sex-starved lot who think nothing of turning up naked for breakfast before being packed off to work by their newfound nymphet-mom.
At that point, the familiar story ends, and another begins. Enter Walt Disney, here named Walt Paul and played by Mr. McCarthy with a prosthetic nose and overbite. Almost instantly, he and his cartoon creation engage in a constantly table-turning Oedipal courtship.
“I own you!” he shouts.
“I want you to crawl!” she shouts back, and the path to excruciatingly prolonged disaster is open.
At the same time, breakaway sections of the film are playing in the Armory’s side galleries. The scenes veer from Food Channel shtick to Pier Paolo Pasolini-style degradation and include at least two startling art historical references.
In the first, the splayed-legged nude woman of Duchamp’s “Étant Donnés” finds multiple male sexual partners. (Mr. McCarthy uses professional porn-film actors for these scenes.) In the second, Mr. McCarthy and Ms. Popper enact the tableau from Massacio’s famous15th-century fresco of a wailing, disconsolate Adam and Eve leaving paradise.
The Duchamp scene is outrageous, funny and flat, the way pornography can be. The Masaccio tableau is unexpectedly moving, all the more because it is re-enacted several times, with the two nude performers repeatedly assuming a posture of shame and grief.
Meanwhile, the main film continues, its pace and volume building in a raucous orgy of bingeing and purging that eventually ends in the death of Walt Disney/Walt Paul at the hands of his dwarfs and the demise of Snow White/White Snow herself. Their bodies are those we see, in the form of life casts, in the house.
What all this means, I don’t exactly know, although it obviously touches on regret for lost innocence and on a recoil from — and a satirist’s relish of — a homegrown plague of give-us-more-pleasure that has spread to much of the world. What I suspect is that in Mr. McCarthy we have a Swift for our time, or maybe a Hieronymus Bosch, and in “WS” — organized by the Armory’s artistic director, Alex Poots, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, in association with Tom Eccles — a scabrous American “Garden of Earthly Delights.”
Like the Armory installation, “Rebel Dabble Babble” at Hauser & Wirth is a collaboration between Mr. McCarthy and his son, Damon. It too is conceived as a film-and-film-set unit. It began as a project by the actor James Franco. After bringing in the McCarthys, Mr. Franco dropped out, and they expanded the piece by dovetailing the plot of “Rebel Without a Cause” with the legend of the erotically intertwined lives of its director, Nicholas Ray, and its starring actors, Dean and Natalie Wood.
As in “WS,” Mr. McCarthy, with the same crazy nose, takes the male lead, playing Ray; the father of Dean’s character in the film; and himself. Other actors also have multiple roles, with stand-ins for the pornographic bits. Over all the work feels at once narrow and diffuse. You may have to care a lot about 1950s Hollywood (I don’t) to stick with it.
Still, vintage McCarthy themes surface: the family as self-lacerating unit; masculinity as a state of fury fueled by impotence; nostalgia as a fool’s faith; Yahooism as an American and now global way of life. As ever, what makes it all work is that Mr. McCarthy sees the Yahoo in himself and in us, and lets us see it too. In a world of brute, pandemic excess, self-knowledge is a minute thing, but a grace.