I skipped breakfast before visiting Paul McCarthy’s monster installation “WS”, which turned out to be a good idea.
In the great drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory, I wandered through an immense jungle of towering turd-like trees and psychedelic flowers, my eyes constantly drifting up to gruesome video tableaux playing out on giant screens. Feeling like a horror-film character whose every movement is tracked by screeching music, I came upon a replica of the lemon yellow cottage in Salt Lake City where McCarthy grew up, and found it suspiciously normal. Sure enough, right nearby, a film set that mimicked the house’s interior, down to the tackiest detail, was strewn with extremely convincing corpses and littered with the detritus from a marathon bacchanal. The walls were smeared with red goop, the carpeting stained with mystery fluids. The whole scene stank of sweat, liquor and rotten vegetables. All around, the Armory’s vast, darkened interior rattled with screams and grunts. I felt myself gag.
McCarthy delights in arousing revulsion. He has built an entire career on disgust, cheerfully grossing out even the most jaded sophisticates. (The Armory treats “WS” like an explicit movie, restricting admission to visitors aged 17 and over.) His performances feature cartoon and fairy-tale characters who come to life and regress into the glop-loving antics of overgrown toddlers, slathering themselves with ketchup, thrashing and humping each other. They plunge prosthetically-enhanced faces into bowls of chocolate syrup or shove sticky things between their legs.
To prevent this perpetual circus of perversion from getting old, McCarthy keeps upping the ante. “WS” stands for White Snow, and his twisted take on Snow White is his biggest, trippiest Weirdworld yet. He has transformed the hall into an adult theme park, a pornographic para-Disneyland that tips up the boulder of consumer romance to expose the slime underneath.
In previous installations, he has taken on Rocky, Heidi and Pinocchio, so Disney is ripe for his brand of psychotic critique. “WS” is the latest sally in what he calls a “program of resistance” against the totalitarian nature of American pop culture. His idiosyncratic perversions spit in the eye of an entertainment conglomerate that strives to homogenise taste.
“Disneyland is so clean,” he has said. “Hygiene is the religion of fascism. The body sack, the sack you don’t enter, it’s taboo to enter the sack. Fear of sex and the loss of control; visceral goo, waddle waddle.” McCarthy blasts holes in the orderly cuteness of commercialised childhood mythology. He sullies what Disney has sanitised, hauling old fairy tales back to their deeply scary roots.
Others no doubt share his disenchantment with mass-produced, candy-coloured fairy tales. Some might even express it by retreating into an internet subculture and seeking out like-minded grumblers all over the world. McCarthy not only takes his iconoclasm public; he makes it the animating principle of his very profitable work.
After years of art-world obscurity, McCarthy hit it big in the 1990s and he’s been nurturing his prestige ever since. His cathartic rites of defilement have accrued quantifiable cachet: one piece sold at Christie’s for $4.5m in 2011. The market loves it when he talks dirty.
McCarthy is fluent in artspeak and deft at playing the establishment’s game. Subverting, transgressing, reinterpreting, critiquing – he does it all, thereby reassuring collectors and curators that they can express their personal independence of vision by supporting him. He has convinced decision-makers that his dripping mayhem is really analytical, detached and mordantly political. Yet all this intellectual posturing merely serves as a cover for primal, Dionysian impulses. At its best, McCarthy’s work can be unpleasant but urgent, plumbing the most primitive and brutal crevices of our collective psyche. He pokes at the savagery lurking somewhere in all of us.
Perhaps even McCarthy has lost his passion for these provocations. At the Armory, he seems to be going through the motions, dutifully trying to outrage whomever is left to shock. The seven-hour multichannel video chronicles a dinner party as it degenerates into murderous violence and manic squalor. He plays “Walt Paul”, a dapper fellow representing a range of authoritarian archetypes: Walt Disney, or any more generic corporate chieftain, a domineering father, God. The character of Snow White also comes with a cloud of implied labels: seductress, muse, victim, daughter, wife, mother. Layered on top of this jumbled psychodrama is pseudo-biblical narrative, in which the phallic fake woods stand in for the Garden of Eden, and Snow White takes on yet another symbolic role as a capitalist Eve avidly gobbling up the poisoned apple. It doesn’t take long to lose patience with this tangle of myths and allegories.
Winding through the labyrinthine installation, beset by mumbled incantations and strangled screams, I found myself wondering why the Armory, one of New York’s newest and most appealing cultural destinations, would commit its resources and its reputation to this bloated horror. “WS” is the first visual arts project presented by its new artistic director, Alex Poots, and it is contrived to court controversy. A shrill chorus of moral guardians has predictably joined in: the New York Post is desperately trying to revive the dormant culture wars of 20 years ago, using flammable phrases like “demented, debauched and just plain dirty”.
Those adjectives aren’t wrong, but they’re beside the point. The shocker is not the flesh or the fluids; it’s that McCarthy’s private obsessions are no more interesting than anyone else’s, even when they are blown up to imperial scale.
On view until August 4, www.armoryonpark.org