Paul McCarthy’s ‘WS’ (2013) was an opera of sex, shit and Snow White. Visiting the Armory’s enormous drill hall was to be harangued by a cacophony of voices reverberating around a vast sound-stage, in the middle of which was a replica of the artist’s childhood home in Utah, surrounded by a garden of plastic flowers and towering plastic turd-trees. This disenchanted garden was raised on a wooden scaffold, giving visitors a worm’s-eye view. Video panoramas conflated McCarthy’s childhood with Walt Disney (here called ‘Walt Paul’, and played by the artist wearing a bulbous prosthetic nose), a vile letch cavorting with a pair of nympho Snow Whites and nine frat-boy dwarves. It was a fairy tale gone rancid, culminating in the rape and murder of Walt and Snow. That the Disney Corporation didn’t manage to get ‘WS’ shut down is a small miracle.
‘WS’ (short for ‘White Snow’) was powered by anger and resentment, McCarthy calling out the institutions of family, education, culture and entertainment with which he grew up for having chipboard-thin morals built on sinkholes of hypocrisy. ‘WS’ was potent as a self-portrait but, as social critique, it was targeted at a US of the past rather than the present: a home from the 1950s; a movie mogul who died 47 years ago; an animated film made in 1937. Aside from the extravagance of its scale, achievable only with the budgets of the early 21st-century art industry, ‘WS’ could have been from another era. After all, today’s creators of spectacle are not so much Disney as Silicon Valley start-ups, selling salvation through connectivity. Yet the same month that ‘WS’ closed, we would see the spectacle of former Disney child star Miley Cyrus twerking her way to career oblivion at the Video Music Awards. Suddenly McCarthy’s tableau seemed less critique than plain reportage.
In side rooms off the drill hall was a parade of videos no less clamorous, often ploddingly repetitive in their transgressions yet occasionally nuanced by stranger forms of psychosexual trauma. In one video, a naked Snow is bombed out on drink and prescription drugs, bullying Walt Paul who shuffles around the house on his knees as if he’s Snow’s child. In one slow, dreamlike vignette, the pair re-create Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés (1946–66) on the soundstage garden. Duchamp made his peephole tableau in secret, during the first two decades of McCarthy’s life, and the latter has spoken of connections between Duchamp’s nude holding the lamp of ‘illuminating gas’ and the torch-carrying Statue of Liberty. Perhaps there is an interpretative argument to be made here about the defilement of an ideal – that of both Snow/McCarthy’s mother and of foundational American myths. However, following this was a video in which a professional porn actor enters the garden and has sex with a latex cast of Snow. So what are we left with? Porn and the literal objectification of the female body. To replicate something doesn’t automatically qualify as critique.
Running in tandem with ‘WS’ was the equally hectoring Rebel Dabble Babble (2013) at Hauser & Wirth’s Chelsea branch. Made in collaboration with the artist’s son, Damon McCarthy, the installation plays with another conflation: Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the entanglements of the film’s stars and its director, Nicholas Ray. Here was more replica architecture: Ray’s bungalow at the Chateau Marmont in LA, but rendered in more schematic form. There was more shouting, porn, sticky liquids, violent rows. There were the multiple identities: James Franco as James Dean and his Rebel ... character Jim; McCarthy senior as Ray and Jim’s father. It would take a serious Hollywood history buff to parse the references and relationships within the piece. But even then I suspect that Rebel Dabble Babble would remain monochrome in tone because – with the transgressive violence, sexual kinks and volume all pitched at the same level – the effect of all that chaos ultimately flat-lined. (It is also literally monochrome, since all the videos and the replica house are in a similar shade of dimly lit beige.) McCarthy has referred to his work as a ‘program of resistance’ against the US consumer-entertainment complex, but framed by a blue-chip Swiss gallery – part of the art industry’s own consumer-entertainment complex – it’s hard to see what’s being resisted here other than the ghosts of McCarthy’s childhood.