(noun) nonchalant absurdity with a dash of embarrassment.

(verb) to be shark bitten.

(adverb) in a manner that is nonchalantly absurd and embarrassing.


28 June 2013

Paul McCarthy's WS: A Day of Disgust and Intrigue

Paul McCarthy’s WS, an acronym for White Snow, is the NC-17 NYC summer art blockbuster, a twisted and subversive adaptation of the 19th-century German fairtytale Snow White. WS explores McCarthy’s artistic oeuvre: in the show we find his fantastical forests, large-scale installations that represent the interior/exterior model, an installation tableaux that synthesizes the body, object, and space; here, in the the Armory’s massive Wade Thompson Drill Hall. Evoking your gag relaxes at times, with its filthy subject matter, both the 7-hour looping film and the food-based objects, the exhibition simultaneously disgusts and intrigues. An internationally acclaimed artist, yet still a bit foreign to many New Yorkers, the L.A. based McCarthy creates a provocative set with graphic content that is not new to his work, and, according to curator Hans- Ulrich Obrist and Alex Poots, the new Artistic Director of the Armory, WS is a “true Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total artwork.”


McCarthy is known for creating challenging, raw and visceral work that “questions and critiques social norms, cultural icons, and accepted histories alike.” When you walk into the Armory you’re first confronted with noise. What you hear are the loud, guttural sounds of the actors in the film, namely the 3 female Snow White-esque characters wearing the red, blue, and yellow dresses of the primary spectrum. These women are casted as White Snow, “a figure who represents both the archetypal virgin and vixen, a daughter as well as a fairytale princess;” the dwarf-like characters with awful prosthetic noses, some wearing college hoodies (also yellow for UCLA and blue for Yale); and Walt Paul, the 50-year-old archetypal figure, a synthesis of Walt Disney, Paul and Paul's father, who, at the beginning of the party, is wearing a tuxedo and later ends up in his birthday suit. According to Lisa Phillips in "Paul McCarthy's Theater of the Body" a main concern of the artist’s work, which has been recurrent throughout his larger body of work, is his use of repetitive, obsessive, and expressive actions. The multichannel video, with and without actually seeing what is going on, is a noisy, sensuous mess and this noise permeates the Armory as you explore the exhibition in its entirety.


If Disney started a porn company, McCarthy would be it’s artistic director. The dwarves are wreaking havoc: banging a steel pot with a wooden spoon, creating atonal noise (not the music genre, just straight noise) with the tambourine, clarinet, accordion and other stringed instruments, and drinking heavily (which originally starts as sipping champagne and martinis and quickly escalates to chugging Jack Daniels and Kettle One straight from the bottle or forcing it down another's throat). The more drinking that takes place the more havoc is wreaked. Odd celebratory objects fill the room, which appears to be the living room in McCarthy’s created space: a Happy Birthday banner hangs from the fireplace’s mantel, a Christmas tree is in the corner, and a floral couch, or a grandma couch, similar to the print of Kim Kardashian’s dress she wore to the Met Ball this past spring. What does this all mean? That McCarthy pays incredible attention to detail? Perhaps, but, moreover, this is the artist doing what he does best, and the reason he has become so popular over the latter half of the 20th century and now into the 21st: his attention to detail is his socio-cultural, sexually inflated commentary on the mundane norms of American life.


The video is the insight into what we are looking at when one continues on to his classic motif of the inside/outside model, inviting us to be voyeurs into the product of what was once chaos. The three-quarter-scale, 8,800-square foot sculpture and yellow ranch style house is an exact replica of McCarthy’s childhood home, it is the central part of the overall exhibition, and it is surrounded by a beautiful, colorful, forest, as if out of a fairytale (duh!) that towers over you as you walk through it and it is the only element in the show that provided me with a sense of ease.

The front red door is cracked open and inviting the viewer inside, but really you can only look through the windows and holes created as intentional viewing spaces. The set smells awful from the lingering condiments everywhere. Walt Paul and White Snow appear as dead, their naked, lifeless bodies thrown on the couch and floor. Confused, you continue on, and, not surprisingly, the bathroom is as disgusting as the other rooms: nice wall paper, black with blue and pink flowers, and, of course, shit or something that resembles it, on top of the toilet. In the first bedroom, the beds are unmade, two Red Bull cans sit atop the nightstand, and the artificial light creates shadows of the blinds on the walls, another recurrent theme in his work, that is, exploring the boundaries of artificial vs. natural. Surprisingly, for such a dirty home, the white sheets are rather clean. Same goes for the second bedroom, except here, one finds dirty white panties and a neon yellow stuffed bunny rabbit staring back at you.



The kitchen is just downright nasty. It smells of rotting baked goods, the dresses of the female characters are on the floor, uneaten cookies on the counter, chocolate syrup on the wall, and bottles upon bottles of empty and half-empty Jack Daniels and Kettle One on the kitchen table, which gave me this feeling similar to one when you’re so hungover that the last thing you want to do is even look at  the bottle that caused your body so much physical grief the next morning. I actually saw flies, which left me wondering will Armory have a rodent/ bug issue by the time this exhibition is complete? Beer bongs also lying on the floor, and, again, another bunny rabbit looking out at you, on the shelf, naturally, beneath the base of the blender, above the dirty dishes and the salt on the kitchen counter. The dining room is not quite as grotesque: more beer bongs, broken dishes, a rocking chair on top of table, crushed Sprite cans, Red Bull and Jack Daniels on the floor, and an uneaten apple on the china cabinet.

I’ll save the most disturbing room for last. In what appears to be some sort of TV room or recreational room, one finds an impaled, naked Walt Paul bobbing for apples centrally placed in the room. More liquor lying around, an oversized jar of mayonnaise, more broken glass and chocolate syrup. And more bunnies, only this time it is taxidermied and its looking at Walt Paul and not you.

I looked around constantly while there, up, down, into spaces and, mostly, at people's reactions to the work. Some faces seemed undaunted by what was going on around them, others jaw-dropped looks of pure disgust. I was more of the latter, disgusted, yet intrigued. Lisa Phillips refers to McCarthy as an “unorthodox, west coast maverick” and I 100% agree, but I can’t guarantee that you won’t leave more desensitized than when you entered.

Jack Hunter for New Yorker's DOMA Cover

Artist Jack Hunter's "Bert and Ernie's Moment of Joy" on the cover of the New Yorker shows pop-culture's most famous gay couple (although Sesame Street denies this and claims they have no sexual orientation) celebrating the DOMA Supreme Court ruling on television. The image, both timeless and incredibly dated to this historical moment, invites the viewer to share in Bert and Ernie's joyous, intimate, and quiet celebration. Well done Jack!