(Photo: James Ewing)
New York’s Park Avenue Armory is an insatiable monster of a space, able to accommodate art fairs and the Royal Shakespeare Company, atonal German operas and homespun missions to Mars, all with what feels like acreage to spare. Until now. Paul McCarthy’s “WS” manages to fill every orifice of the 55,000-square-foot Wade Thomson Drill Hall, oozing under the bleachers and out into the period rooms to tell the grimmest of fairy tales—the artist’s debaucherous take on Snow White, or White Snow (WS). Bring on the depraved Disney magic, because through August 4, the Park Avenue Armory is where nightmares come true.
“Let’s not beat around the bush, this is a really tough work,” said Tom Eccles, consulting curator at the Armory, at Tuesday’s press preview. “It’s painful.” Bracketing a kind of hellish studio backlot are giant elevated screens playing a four-channel video that follows WS from the forest—which alternates from a Rousseauian jungle studded with tropical megablooms to just plain trippy, depending on the lighting—into the home of the dwarves, an oafish, mentally challenged, and pants-free bunch who favor Yale and UCLA hoodies. A series of increasingly raucous house parties ends with Walt Paul (McCarthy himself, stealing the show as a Walt Disney-like character who unravels from inscrutable butler mode to a kind of coked-up Walter Matthau) on all fours in the basement “rumpus room,” sodomized with a broomstick—as if Bosch and Brueghel teamed up on an alternate ending for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
The seven-hour feature, culled from some 350 hours of footage (“We couldn’t even watch it all,” says McCarthy), takes place mostly inside a thoroughly trashed, gravy-and-chocolate smeared replica of the artist’s childhood home in Salt Lake City. The ranch-style house has been recreated in three-quarter-scale, a choice that, when combined with the tightly shot, loosely edited cacophony of sins, foodstuffs, and liquids, makes for a claustrophobia- and queasiness-inducing viewing experience.
The Armory installation includes the sets—a bedroom, kitchen, basement, and hallways—where the video performances were filmed. The rooms cannot be entered, only glimpsed through a series of hastily cut glory holes that perforate their exteriors. Viewers prowl the periphery to glimpse naked mannequins, empty bottles, broken crockery, abandoned cookies and cakes, a Christmas tree, and, perched prominently on a table, a soggy, rotten apple. A well-thumbed issue of Artforum is visible among the discarded tutus and tambourines.
Amidst the sensory overload of WS, viewers remain on the margins: as dazed and ultimately frustrated voyeurs who, even while walking through the eerie ersatz forest, find it impenetrable and dispiriting. Maybe that’s the point. In a filmed conversation with Eccles and Hans Ulrich Obrist that plays on a monitor in one of the period rooms, McCarthy explains (over the constant interruptions of his son and collaborator, Damon) his interest in depicting the character of Walt Paul as an outsider. After enough drinks, the dwarves become “a gang that teaches the outsider a lesson.”
The Armory has imposed an age restriction for the exhibition (you must be over 17 to ride this ride) and, there’s even a gift shop, in which McCarthy has scrawled his signature on mounds of marked-up Disney merch. But the more interesting parallels between Disney and McCarthy—two wildly ambitious dreamers who headed west to realize massive, endless projects (“It’s something that will never be finished,” said Disney of Disneyland. “Something that I can keep developing…and adding to.”)—come in one of WS’s nine “satellite” films. In bed with White Snow and contemplating options for a restorative getaway, Walt Paul, clad in paisley pajamas, rails against the phonies of Palm Beach and their jaded view of his empire of the pretend. “They all say ‘It’s too BIG, Walt! It’s too BIG!’”
Image at top right: Paul McCarthy, “WS,” (2013). Image courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. (Photo: Joshua White)