Watch This Space

Bigger is Better? Looking Back on Paul McCarthy's NYC Takeover

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Bigger is Better? Looking Back on Paul McCarthy's NYC Takeover
A view of Paul McCarthy's sweeping "WS" installation at the Park Avenue Armory

Back when I covered the opening of the Venice Biennale, I wrote about one of the chief problems facing the art world today: the rush. Everybody has too much visual stimulae on their plates, so if a work isn’t big, impressive, or immersive not enough people aren't going to care. The panoply of artworks to see in the world—not to mention the ever-present attention claims of the digital age—makes audiences feel like there’s just not enough time to stop, sit, and contemplate.

That’s not to say that Paul McCarthy’s“Rebel Dabble Babble” and “WS,” the two most-talked-about shows of the summer, didn’t blow my mind. Both really did. Still, their scale is immense, and it can’t be denied that size is part of the draw. Ninety trucks traveled cross-country from Los Angeles to carry movies, movie sets, photographs, and more, which were then assembled in the city for the exhibitions. At the Park Avenue Armory, 2,600 people attended McCarthy’s opening, and nearly as many came to Hauser & Wirth on 18th Street.

With “WS”—aka “White Snow,” the artist’s scatological, homicidal, borderline pornographic paean to “Snow White”—about to end its run at the Park Avenue Armory this weekend, the talk still hasn’t died down. A friend of mine asked me, “Is it worth going to the Armory?” I didn’t know how to reply. There’s certainly a lot of art in there—it’s one of the biggest shows I have seen in New York. The scale reminds me of Christoph Büchel’s 2006 “Simply Botiful”show in London, also at Hauser & Wirth, in which he constructed a full-sized hotel, complete with squatter's dens, a maze of fridges, and a dirt cube with tusks flying out. That’s a show I will never forget, because it awed me with its scale. It was fun to have to climb down holes and through tunnels and to feel totally immersed in the space. McCarthy’s installation is similar in that way.  

For “WS,” McCarthy has constructed a life-sized haunted forest in the middle of the Upper East Side. It’s fun because it’s an exploration. I ran around it, traveling through its shadows tinted with strange blue light, creepily looming plastic trees, gargantuan greenery, and glugging, gushing, high-pitched noises. I peeped into the windows of cottages dotted around the landscape and saw the remnants of a depraved party, with all surfaces smeared with foodstuff, liquor-fueled destruction abounding, and an impeccably realistic model of the artist with a toy stuffed into the lifeless mouth of his naked corpse (alongside an equally realistically dead Snow White). 

The entire forest, of course, is the film set created for the instantly notorious videos displayed on the surrounding walls of the Armory, showing three different large-nosed incarnations of the Disney heroine participating in increasingly debauched escapades with seven dwarves (wearing college hoodies) and a befuddled stand-in for Walt Disney himself, played with gusto by McCarthy. The videos are a cross between Ryan Trecartin and a Hollywood B-movie, with a touch of Magical Kingdom fantasy gone deeply, horribly wrong. 

After my first encounter with the show, I decided to risk another McCarthy experience by heading to the Hauser & Wirth stretch, which closed last Friday. After a beer at the very cool bar built by Dieter Roth’s grandsons, Björn and Oddur Roth, I was ready to face the show. “Rebel Dabble Babble” had a grand entrance, with the iconic Hollywood sign shining with a few of the letters facing the wrong way, quickly telegraphing the show’s subversion of Hollywood.

A clutch of cottages, recreations of McCarthy’s parents’ home in Utah, appeared within the huge space of Hauser & Wirth—everything took place in the idealized ‘50s suburban setting that the cottages evoked. The grotesque, crazy events taking place in the films undermined the traditional values of this era as depicted in Hollywood films. A sort of parody of Rebel Without a Cause, “Rebble Dabble Babble” explored the rumored sexual relationships between Nicholas Ray, the iconic film’s director, and his stars James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo

Perhaps I just wasn’t ready for super-sized art and the battle of the big that descended on New York in these two shows. Taking it down to my scale, my favorite part of “Rebel Dabble Babble” was a series of striking, visually resourceful film stills in the back of the gallery. So… to answer my friend’s question, is it worth going to the Armory for one last look at what McCarthy wrought in New York this summer? Absolutely, if only to revel in the pleasures of an expansive vision—and rediscover the enormous appeal, and abundant rewards, of the small. 

Watch This Space is a column by writer and art collector Tiffany Zabludowicz. See her previous column here.

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