The apotheosis of Paul McCarthy has arrived, evinced by the Los Angeles artist’s concurrent occupation of three key patches of prime exhibition real estate: the enormous Park Avenue Armory; Hauser & Wirth’s palatial digs in Chelsea (the second consecutive McCarthy show in that space!); and, finally, that same gallery’s tony Upper East Side townhouse. Now 67, McCarthy has been the art world’s perennial bad boy. Since the 1990s, his recastings of children’s stories and pop-culture myths as debauched bacchanals—replete with mimed sex and violence, as well as copious amounts of foodstuffs standing in for any number of bodily fluids and excretions—have been regarded as transgressive, darkly comic explorations of the American psyche.
His latest and biggest extravaganza, the space-devouring WS at the Armory, takes Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as its inspiration (the initialed title stands for White Snow). At either end of the cavernous drill hall, a live-action, four-channel video (playing on screens the size of billboards) pumps out the artist’s version of the story. With a running time of seven hours, this epic tale features the attractive young Elyse Poppers as the titular fairy-tale icon (as well as her doubles), some nine more-or-less repulsive dwarfs and McCarthy himself as Walt Disney. Cavorting in a suburban house, they wear fake noses; remove their clothing; smear food and drink all over themselves and everywhere else; burlesque drunkenness, sex and domestic violence; and in general, make a whole lot of noise. It’s a Girls Gone Wild party by way of fairyland—with the volume turned up to 11.
The hall also holds the sets in which the video was shot—the rooms, complete with detritus and sculptures of the participants, plus an immense forest, populated with tall blobby baobabs and giant flowers. The wooded area also hides a smaller-scale version of the onscreen house, which apparently replicates McCarthy’s boyhood home in Salt Lake City. Nine additional videos, with many more realistic simulations of sex and misogynistic acts toward Snow White, are ensconced in a series of small rooms bordering the space.
At Hauser & Wirth downtown, an extremely similar work, Rebel Dabble Babble (credited as a collaboration with the artist’s son, Damon McCarthy), dispenses with the forest, and transposes the underlying narrative from Snow White to Rebel Without a Cause. The installation includes videos, as well as photographic stills, and it piles on the graphic sex. (Is it the proximity to the adult-film industry’s home in the San Fernando Valley that compels so many L.A. artists to incorporate pornography into their work?)
As Roberta Smith recently wrote in The New York Times, the timing of McCarthy’s projects—coming hot on the heels of back-to-back Jeff Koons exhibitions at Gagosian Gallery and David Zwirner—sets up a clash between the Apollonian detachment of Koons’s overgrown lawn statuary and McCarthy’s Dionysian revels. (Although McCarthy’s previous show at Hauser & Wirth, in May, comprised oligarch-friendly Koonsian merch in the form of monumental wooden carvings based on Snow White figurines.) McCarthy himself acknowledges as much, having his characters in WS derisively fellate balloon dogs in one segment. Other art-world in-jokes include the dwarfs wearing college hoodies emblazoned with the names Yale, UCLA and USC—all top-tier M.F.A. programs.
While there are some nice passages of Surrealism to be found in the works (the mini house in the woods probably being the best), McCarthy’s overuse of depravity seems designed to provoke some sort of catharsis or revelation in the audience. But it doesn’t. It would require a massive suspension of disbelief to imagine that McCarthy is anywhere near as degenerate as he’s pretending to be, or that he’s broken any actual taboos, or that someone would really be shocked or appalled by any of this stuff. At best, McCarthy’s antics might elicit a mild chuckle or feigned indignation. After all, ours is the era of Internet porn and such schlock horror fare as The Human Centipede. For all their playacting at wild abandon, McCarthy’s fractured fairy tales come off as mannered and anachronistic.
In "Life Cast" at Hauser & Wirth uptown, however, McCarthy plays an entirely different game. There, five life-size nude sculptures—four of Poppers lying or sitting on glass tables, and one of McCarthy himself, sleeping or dead on an old door—have been rendered in silicone with real hair and glass eyes. They achieve such a high degree of realism that approaching them feels like an invasion of personal space. We expect them to breathe at any moment, and the fact that they remain still is as uncanny as if they were moving. Duane Hanson and John De Andrea did exactly this sort of thing 40 years ago, but McCarthy takes the idea to a whole new level, achieving a magical and transporting sense of presence that his forays into perverse enchantment never do.—Joseph R. Wolin