I expected the Paul McCarthy show at New York’s Park Avenue Armory to be raunchy, demented, transgressive. What I didn’t anticipate was that it would be hilarious.
If you follow the contemporary art world you know that McCarthy excels at tweaking the public’s nose. Not long ago there was the giant inflatable “Complex Pile” he contributed to ultra-civilized monumental art shows.
The fifty-one-foot dog poop went pop in a downpour one recent day in Hong Kong, but not before it had made its comment on our expectations for the public sculpture we’re used to admiring. Plastic dolls, masks and ketchup have also figured in the 68-year-old McCarthy’s oeuvre over the years.
In W/S, the largest installation the artist has ever created, we have a multimedia reimagining of the tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, its Disney iconography mashed up with elements of horror and porn and probably a few other elements I missed. In the films that are the bulwark of the show, McCarthy plays an ersatz Walt Disney, here called Walt Paul, nose prosthetiicized to the max.
Neither Maud nor I said much as we went around the Armory’s cavernous Wade Thompson Drill Hall, one of the largest public spaces in Manhattan. The last time I visited the Armory it was for the prim and proper Winter Antiques Show, and I remember marvelling at the fancily gorgeous reception rooms designed by people like Louis Comfort Tiffany.
This time we heard the exhibit before we saw anything, a raucous moaning and groaning like a bloated x-rated soundtrack. The noise emanated from two gigantic screens, each as big as a drive in theater’s. On the screens, dwarves cavorted with White Snow – McCarthy’s version of the Disney heroine — in a hectic, squalid party.
Under the blast of sound we couldn’t hear each other anyway. In front of us stood a large, Wonderland-proportioned forest of painted styrofoam trees and garish monster flowers.
Its lavish 8,800 square feet formed the centerpiece of the show and had served as the soundstage of the production, before it was carted to New York from Los Angeles in dozens of tractor-trailers.
A house, or “cottage,” stood in front of us, or anyway a film set version of one. The back was punctuated with a series of square peepholes like the ones you see at some major construction sites. I’ve always liked peering into those. Here there was the same suggestion of a secret view.
There were disturbing glimpses of the aftermath of something gone terribly wrong, a woman and a man collapsed in a tacky living room. But the squirt bottle of Hershey’s was the tipoff as to the display’s tomfoolery. You do know that in Hollywood, Hershey’s often substitutes for blood, don’t you?
In W/S, McCarthy exhumes Walt Disney and has him trot around getting into trouble before really getting into trouble at the hands of Grumpy, Sneezy, et al. All I could think of was a guy I knew who landed a good job working at Disney in the ‘60s before Walt personally had him fired for sporting a beard.
Now here was one of the most famous men in the world surrounded by beards and noses and genitalia and a lot of chocolate syrup, making love to a wench of a White Snow, all of them doing everything that no one would ever do in a Disney film (or theme park or corporation). It’s an upside down, inside out world, as crude and scary as the other was clean and safe. I imagine the Disney barracudas preparing their legal briefs.
Randy Kennedy of The New York Times did a piece on the artist recently that said, “His work can – and does – provoke physical revulsion. But it is not mere provocation; it’s intended as an all-out assault, a ‘program of resistance,’ as he calls it. And the older he gets, the more explicit he has become that his target is the American entertainment-consumer economy.”
Spectators weren’t allowed in the forest, but in a smaller film arcade along the side we could observe chapters of the story. An unclothed Prince Charming wandered through its glades. Shocking events transpired. We could also visit another house in a retro ranch style that is actually a three-quarter-scale replica of McCarthy’s Salt Lake City childhood home. Alex Poots, Artistic Director of the Armory, has had a lot of explaining to do about the piece, and at one point he said, “it explores the vast and at times distressingly dark corners of the human psyche.” And the dark corners of some pretty sad vintage rooms, I would say.
Walt Paul is not Paul McCarthy – the latter lives in Pasadena with his wife of 46 years, surrounded by kids, grandkids and pets. His grown son partnered with him in putting on W/S.
McCarthy told an interviewer that the show “may have something to do with how we see reality and desire. And art. This is a kind of hyper-reality of desire. A Disneyesque landscape that does not exist. A dreamscape.” All of this styrofoam and soundstage equipment comes at a cost, of course, and the project required millions of dollars. I like to think of Walt Paul in his lumpy nose approaching potential benefactors: Well, there’s this plastic forest, see, and this Hershey’s syrup…
I read a review that said the show “put the grim back into the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale.” I saw it as a series of extravagant what-ifs. What if Snow White had a split (or triple) personality? What if there was a handsome prince who didn’t rescue her but treated her more like a centerfold than a princess? What if Walt actually appeared in his own movies alongside Bambi, say, or Cinderella? What if those beloved childhood movies were more like stag films? What if the dwarves weren’t wholesome and helpful and cute but more like your twisted Uncle Charlie?
The Grimm tales have always been dark. The great children’s author Philip Pullman recently came out with a new version, just in time for the 200th anniversary of their first publication.
McCarthy’s show is also unabashedly commercial, with plentiful Snow White artifacts available in the gift shop.
Pullman’s Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm are punchy and elegant but also violent and raw. In his translation of Snow White, a huntsman cuts out the heart and liver of a wild boar and takes them back to the evil queen as evidence of the girl’s death. “The cook was ordered to season them well, fry them, and the wicked queen ate them all up.”
Do you recall the conversation parents have had from time to time about whether these ancient fairy tales offer an appropriate reading experience for their innocent youngsters? The answer is No, if you’re doing it right. And this version is done to a turn.