Paul McCarthy’s megalithic installation at the Park Avenue Armory in New York is the magnum opus of one of the most prolific artists this century. Using the fairy tale of Snow White and the personality of Walt Disney as his departure point, McCarthy weaves a tale that is far more obscene and disturbing. Co-curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist – the star curator – WS is McCarthy’s largest work yet, and is certainly a modern day gesamtkusntwerk. Encompassing the entire Armory (including the main hall, the unfinished side rooms, the balconies, and even the ornamental beaux arts offices up front), the piece coarsely rambles through an institution known for its architectural grace and mammoth size.
WS consists of a several hour-long video shown on multiple channels, two large sets where the video was filmed, several shorter videos on the same topics, and smaller models of the sets. The sets can be traversed through, keeping fully intact all of the props from the videos. Walking through the sets is like walking through a phantasmagorical crime scene. The videos themselves show McCarthy’s version of Snow White accompanied by the dwarves and a character named Walt Paul (played by McCarthy himself). Walt Paul is the pugnacious orchestrator of immoral decadence and absurdity within the sets, with White Snow being the Oedipal motherly sex goddess.
This type of psychological deviance is what McCarthy has come to be known for since the 80s, but only now have the allegories grown to such heights as what is at the Armory. The dwarves, too, are relics of psychosexual warfare that pervade McCarthy’s oeuvre. But with this piece there seems to be a political subtext, as all of the dwarves are outfitted with sweatshirts carrying logos of Ivy League and other prestigious schools. This type of flippant treatment goes hand in hand with the frequent sex scenes and eventual murder and dismemberment of Walt Paul.
But perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of the show is the treatment that the Armory has given McCarthy’s work. They supposedly asked McCarthy to censor parts of his video only days prior to the installation date. The Armory is a seriously ‘safe’ institution for the arts, a destination in the Upper East Side for affluent families to frequent, so the supposed censorship comes at no real surprise – but the way in which it was executed is fairly absurd. One just hopes that this is not indicative of a more pugnacious trend of suppression.
Despite this particularly dour dose of control, WS comes out mostly unscathed. It is easily one of the most interesting exhibitions of the year, and is a truly spectacular work. And the word spectacular is key here; because what McCarthy has given us is in every sense of the word spectacle – but a necessary spectacle at a moment of parsimonious works and shows. The immersive environment, the resistance to political correctness, and the complete embrace of pornography: McCarthy is engaged in the act of spectacular art making like few others.
Paul McCarthy: WS, 19 June – 14 August, Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue NY 10065
1. Paul McCarthy, WS, 2013, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Joshua White.