WS, Paul McCarthy’s interpretation of Disney’s Snow White at the Park Avenue Armory, was rated NC-17 by some responsible committee, a designation that barred minors from entry while confirming the exhibition’s lurid content. The bulk of the naughty material was contained in a multichannel video projected on eight screens above the vast former drill hall. In more than seven hours of footage shot on a set resembling a suburban tract home, a princess named White Snow, her ladies-in-waiting and a pack of frat-house dwarves engage in a chocolate-smeared, alcohol-soaked orgy. Presiding over it all is McCarthy as “Walt Paul,” a debased patriarch and one more rutting, grunting creature. Bodies are treated like objects, and objects like bodies; everyone is compromised, and everything is used for taking pleasure.
Viewers watched McCarthy’s version of expanded cinema while ambling around a Styrofoam enchanted forest that rivaled a “real” Disneyland attraction. Amid this feat of Imagineering was a replica of McCarthy’s childhood home and what appeared to be parts of the film set. Visitors could peep inside through windows and holes to see party detritus and hyperrealistic sculptures of Walt Paul and White Snow passed out in the living room. The latter’s spread-eagle pose recalled Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés, but the tableau was equally suggestive of the Hangover franchise’s sanctioned irreverence. Indeed, viewers were no more likely to contemplate the nature of voyeurism than they were simply to stare at the mess.
Even when his work has these carnal overtones, McCarthy is far from the “body artist” he was once billed as. There is an important difference between chocolate syrup and excrement, and McCarthy is concerned primarily with the associative play that happens when his cast is drenched in the former. WS offered a rich, if repulsive, vision of sentimental America through the language of costumes, masks, makeup and set design. In this sense, WS belongs to a tradition of “world making,” to borrow a concept from art historian Alex Potts, that includes Edward Kienholz’s brothel nightmare Roxy’s (1961-62) and Mike Kelley’s high school musical Day Is Done (2005-06). Despite its detailed production design, WS staged a blunt collision between base materials and cherished abstractions. In a simple reversal (reflected in the logic of the protagonist’s name), Disney’s sanitized allegories of purity and youth were confronted with the brute realism of a dirty old man with a high-definition video camera.
This may be a “subversion” of an American icon, as the Armory’s curators maintained, but who really has a stake in the sanctity of Disney’s myths? Certainly no one over 17. As a figure of cultural oppression, Disney is a vague straw man who has been “subverted” to death already, most successfully in the subtle, unhinged work of Llynn Foulkes, Los Angeles’ premier artist of Mickey Mouse paranoia.
If WS felt like an exhausted, vague parody of the culture industry, it found more traction as biography. Between McCarthy’s lecherous father-figure act and the reconstruction of his childhood home, WS came across as an oddly personal tale, told through a common pop vocabulary. (Considering that McCarthy frequently collaborates with his son, Damon, WS may also be one of the all-time creepiest instances of father-son bonding.)
The scale of WS was a testament to the art world’s current capacity for production value, which appears to be catching up to that of the entertainment industry McCarthy’s work was meant to critique. WS was the centerpiece of what one publicist aptly dubbed “McCarthy Spring,” an event that also included three related exhibitions at Hauser & Wirth’s two Manhattan locations. “Rebel Dabble Babble,” a stripped-down, sexed-up take on Rebel Without a Cause, was presented in Chelsea, and a suite of nude “body casts” of McCarthy and Elyse Poppers, the White Snow actress, were on view uptown. (Another exhibition in Chelsea held in May featured tepid, luxurious wood sculptures depicting cherubic princes and princesses.)
The ethics of McCarthy’s work depends on his own participation in the debased carnival. In his videos McCarthy always takes on the most extreme humiliation himself. Yet this democratic approach to abjection belies an economic reality: the man playing an impotent fool and cavorting with nubile young women is, in fact, the CEO of a booming art industry. If McCarthy helped usher in a generation of post-studio artists in Southern California, he may also be at the crest of a new kind of studio system centered on a handful of powerful galleries and art stars. The import of WS lies not in another artist mining the movies for campy, transgressive imagery but in his indicating a new stratum of blockbuster high culture: the art world’s version of Hollywood.