Walking into Paul McCarthy’s enormous and hallucinatory exhibition WS at the Park Avenue Armory, I was immediately hit by a cacophony of moaning, gasping and screaming projected from multiple video screens around the installation. Turning around to witness White Snow, McCarthy’s demented version of the virginal Disney fairytale princess, and the Seven Dwarfs pleasuring themselves with Jeff Koons-esque balloon dogs, I realized WS may be one of the dirtiest, both sexually and literally, immersive art installations I’ve ever seen and I mean that as a compliment.
His largest and most ambitious work to date, McCarthy’s WS is just one exhibition in his takeover of the New York art world this summer. With three exhibitions at Hauser & Wirth, the Los Angeles-based artist’s shocking art is nearly impossible to miss. A controversial art figure, I find that viewers either love or hate McCarthy’s corruption of iconic fairytales, myths and classic Disney films. As for me, if an artist makes a sculpture of Santa Claus holding a giant buttplug, I’m immediately a fan.
Filling the Wade Thompson Drill Hall, McCarthy, working with his son Damon McCarthy, constructs a giant artificial forest with 30 foot trees and bright, almost sexual fake flowers, as well as a replica of McCarthy’s seemingly quaint, yellow ranch-style childhood home. Both the forest and the house display the remnants of McCarthy’s depraved and decadent films, which were all created on site. Playing with the tension between the real and the artificial throughout the exhibition, much of the construction of these spaces remains in the open such as rafters and wooden support beams outside the forest.
On either side of the installation and in smaller rooms,WS features multiple video projections, with White Snow, Walt Paul, played by McCarthy himself as a cross between the artist and Walt Disney, the rowdy Dwarves, including a Dwarf named Humpy, and a very horny Prince Charming. With the audience restricted to over 17 years old, these often disturbing, difficult and yet engrossing videos run upwards of two and a half hours, allowing each viewer to have a different experience through the installation.
When entering the Park Avenue Armory, the viewer first comes across a film set of McCarthy’s childhood home, which looks like it was hit by a tornado of trash with broken whiskey bottles, chocolate sauce, food, stuffed animals, tacky figurines of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and a kitschy artificial silver Christmas tree. In addition to this filthy detritus, the house also reveals sculptural bodies of dead White Snow and Walt Paul in one living room and Walt Paul with a broom shoved up his butt and out his mouth in another. Wondering what horrible events took place in the space, the inside of the house appears like a crime scene, still slightly smelling of food, sweat and performance.
Peering through the windows and small cut-outs in walls in order to see the inner destruction, McCarthy transforms the viewer into the voyeur, implicating them in this abject fairytale and drawing them into the installation as other viewers became visible in the other windows and holes of the house. Peeking into the house, as well as observing the other viewers, there were both viewers, like me, who gasped with glee as one of the holes perfectly frames a pair of dirty underwear in the bedroom and others who seemed as if they’d like to personally lecture McCarthy on the wholesomeness of art.
After walking through the massive, darkened forest and past a sculpture of White Snow in a deli case, I noticed a sign before entering into the video rooms on the side of the Armory explaining that the films were for mature audiences. The staff at the Park Avenue Armory were not kidding since Prince Charming graphically penetrating the White Snow mannequin greeted me as I entered.
McCarthy’s films feature moments such as Walt Paul and White Snow absurdly and off-puttingly laughing over cooking, Walt Paul humping a tree and perhaps my favorite and the most jolting, White Snow sucking on a boom mic. Not only do McCarthy’s films present jaw-dropping scenes and the utter stripping away of White Snow’s innocence, who sometimes appears as a twin or a triplet, but they also investigate art historical imagery, as well as the role of the muse.
In addition to the balloon dog, McCarthy also references art history from a long lingering shot of a Campbell’s soup can in the food-covered chaos to art history’s ultimate muse Olympia. In his 2-channel film “Olympia,” one channel presents White Snow nude and reclining like Manet’s iconic painting, while the other reveals White Snow chiding Paul and dragging him by his ears. Referencing the tension and control in the role of the muse over artist, White Snow becomes Paul’s own abusive muse.
With multiple layers from art historical to the Freudian with the depravity all occurring inside McCarthy’s childhood home, WS is an enormous psychedelic trip into the artist’s subconscious, obsessions and overall body of work. Included with the press release, McCarthy adds a poem detailing his thinking about the exhibition, which ends with the hilarious and also revealing phrase, “the obsession/the self/Masturbation.” From the self-pleasuring filling his films to the oddly personal use of his own childhood home to the complete dive into his own artistic obsessions with the fairytale Snow White, WS could be looked at as a monumental form of artistic masturbation.
Leaving the world of WS overstimulated and dazed, I felt that the Park Avenue Armory should be applauded for mounting an exhibition like WS, which is clearly not an easily digestible, crowd-pleasing and family friendly show. Even decades after the 90s culture wars, many arts institutions are still very hesitant to present difficult and controversial art due to the onslaught of right wing outrage, which WS received a few days after the opening in a New York Post editorial. It was refreshing and thoroughly heartening to see such a boundary-pushing, nightmarish and undoubtedly memorable show in an Upper East Side institution.
And to answer the question I know is on everyone’s mind: Yes. There is a Disney World-like gift shop.
Paul McCarthy’s WS will be at the Park Avenue Armory until August 4, 2013.