There’s a lot that can be said about Paul McCarthy’s WS installation, which opened this week at the Park Avenue Armory in upper Manhattan. One could note the full spectrum of sexual atrocities committed on-screen during his numerous filmic works, or the bizarre references to Walt Disney and his fantastic empire of entertainment, or even to the prosthetic noses he seems to put on all his characters of late. No matter the line of discussion, McCarthy’s show, presented by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and Armory artistic director Alex Poots, is a dizzying and difficult immersion into McCarthy’s powerful body of work.
The crown jewel of McCarthy’s almost ubiquitous presence in New York this spring, White Snow takes the classic Grimm’s fairy tale and its subsequent “Disney-fied” iterations as its inspiration, and translates it into sprawling multi-channel filmic work and installation that mixes deep psychological horror with cultural tropes, fantasy with perversion, and American cinematic history with deeper explorations of legend and humanity. At the center is McCarthy, inserting himself into the piece as “Walt Paul,” the debauched lord of the installation, and who is ultimately destroyed by his own creations.
Immediately noticeable upon entering the Armory’s cavernous drill hall is the installation’s sheer scale. Running the full city block that the armory occupies, the room has been transformed into a full hollywood soundstage, complete with a burgeoning, mysterious forest where the 7 dwarves Los Angeles bungalow/cottage is buried away, a series of enclosed, filth-strewn set pieces where sculptures depicting the deceased bodies of several characters lie (in one, Walt Paul lies over a bucket of apples, run through with a broomstick), and bookended by 8 enormous video panels, each playing a single channel from the epic 7 hour film the installation is built around. Around the sides of the main room, secluded away in several alcoves are an additional series of video installations, capturing domestic scenes, festishized performances and sexual deviances performed by White Snow, Walt Paul, and others. Described as a “machine,” McCarthy used these set pieces as the launching point for his work, constantly entering into the set in character to film the results, and assembling together as his series of segments and films from those experiments.
The full effect of the piece is one of immediate horror, which unfolds as the viewer passes through the narrative and space of the work. The room is almost constantly engulfed in giddy shrieks, cackling and howls, often breaking in unexpectedly. Characters take turns defiling each other and rolling in their own filth, eventually killing White Snow and Walt Paul during the climactic party scene, goaded on by the unbounded Id of the dwarves.
But the work does not leave itself merely to prurient exercises in excess. McCarthy uses these situations to drive at the fragmented nature of his characters. White Snow eventually splits into three separate females, two of which are complicit in the death of the third, and Walt Paul’s dual identity (McCarthy/Disney) as creator makes the piece fluctuate in stability between a wholly contained narrative and its relation to the artist and his body of work. Moments of domestic delicacy between WS and WP are paralleled with moments of frenetic sexual energy, a dualistic relationship between creator and created, subject and object that brings bizarre new dialogues into the piece, and make the broader work all the more powerful.
These character developments drive a gradual process of individuation, slowly bringing more human elements to each aspect of the initially alienating scenes presented to the viewer in the main room of the piece. As multiple narratives and layers begin emerging from the work, McCarthy’s characters become locked in a complicit dance of mutual destruction, creator and created playing out their dynamic through the debasement and confrontation with the deeper recesses of the human psyche.
At the same time, the devices and imagery of corporate film culture (a fitting subtext for the Los Angeles-based McCarthy) cannot be avoided, and his choice to include Walt Disney as a major element of the work is extremely significant. The viewer, rather than merely confronting the interior of the Snow White legend, is forced to consider the broader forces at play, the domineering force of American cultural capitalism reproducing the Snow White myth, and reconstructing it along the lines of contemporary tropes of innocence and fantasy. Sending the work aloft as a film set, McCarthy then reinvigorates the story as his own creation myth, with a slight abstraction. The work takes on a new narrative, more reminiscent of the original Grimm’s fairy tale: the manipulation and exploitation of the Snow White story within the American film industry becomes its own fable, the destruction of its characters, and their inherent lack of “traditional” morality breaking down the aura constructed around Disney’s childish naïveté.
Since the opening of the press preview for WS this past Tuesday, a single question has been posed throughout much of the writing on McCarthy’s latest work, inquiring: “What is at stake in the art world?” While this is a difficult question, one cannot avoid a feeling of urgency in McCarthy’s recent work, particularly White Snow. Perhaps the best indication of what McCarthy might be asking of the viewer can be found in the dialogue of his work, on view until early August. Throughout the work, language often breaks down, or is rendered inaudible, giving the often familiar on-screen images a nakedness that short-circuits their original meanings, opening them up against the rest of the work. It’s a jarring moment, forcing the viewer to confront the coded messages the image itself carries, and to realize that, perhaps, the screen’s content alone is not the meaning of the exhibition. In a month where major debates on information control are the forefront of the public consciousness, and reviews of McCarthy’s show dwell only on the lurid images and shocking sights on-screen, perhaps this message is more important than we could possibly imagine.
WS closes on August 4th.
‘Here’s Snow White. Don’t Bring the Kids’ [New York Times]
“Saltz on the Armory’s (Very, Very Dirty) Paul McCarthy Show” [New York Magazine]
“McCarthy’s X-Rated Snow White” [Bloomberg]
“The Filth Behind the Fairy Tale’ [Financial Times]
“The Demented Imagineer” [New York Times]
Park Avenue Armory [Venue Site]