Sunday, June 23, 2013



Not for the faint of heart, Paul McCarthy's WS at the Park Avenue Armory is brilliant, savage, monstrously hysterical and staggering in its debauchery and dark hilarity. Run, don't walk to this extravaganza of Disney meets Caligula meets Otto Muehl.

courtesy Hauser & Wirth; image from Gothamist

What's it all about? WS (Snow White's inverted initials) is part demented fantasy, part 
scatalogical extravaganza -- a derailed folktale that has both outraged and enthralled its New York audience. As usual, earlier this week Jerry Saltz hit the nail on the head, and although his support of McCarthy, whom he has championed since the 80s, is not so robust here, his New York Magazine review still hits all the bases.

The Park Avenue Armory, a spectacle in and of itself, is one of the largest open spaces in New York City. Its opulent foyer, period rooms and the architectural embellishments that ornament this social club/military shed yield handily to the 55,000 square foot drill hall that has served as a performance and exhibition space since 2007. In WS, McCarthy has conquered its massiveness to grand effect, employing elements of performance, film and sculpture in this eye-popping installation. 

For sheer spectacle -- the size and the inner life of this thing -- WS is like the eighth wonder of the world. Venturing outside the installation is tantamount to leaving the central action of a video game -- a no man's land surrounded by scaffolding, emptiness and stadium lights -- its perimeters laid bare like the sides of a canvas. 

The east and west walls of the drill hall host gigantic film screens featuring events that took place in and around the installation -- perhaps the night before. The footage depicts a party gone haywire, and as mischievous Disney characters devolve into sadism their frenzied tomfoolery and risky business morph into total mayhem. The blaring soundtrack, a mixture of squeals, white noise and general commotion, while not deafening, is your constant aural companion as you traverse this meandering collage of detritus, carnage and anarchy.

Walking the perimeter of McCarthy's installation of ransacked suburban homes, you experience that can't-help-but-stare-at-the-car-crash phenomenon -- it's gruesome and demented and stupefyingly electric and you can't take your eyes off of it. Interior lights still ablaze, the cutaways and windows that allow viewers to peer inside the residences take voyeurism to a whole new level.

WS, courtesy Hauser + Wirth

Departing the house structures, you descend into a lavish plastic garden of luscious ground cover, delicate flowers and tree totems that are weirdly excremental, as if made from towering piles of glistening shit. Still, the surroundings are an intoxicating mixture of museum diorama, Disneyland and that exquisite California flora.

McCarthy came of age in the 60s and 70s, an era, as we know, renown for its protests, activism, rejection and political, sexual and artistic rebellion. As such, his work has celebrated a sort of ideological shoulder-rubbing with (exercise caution in hitting this link) Viennese Actionism (its founder, Otto Muehl, died just last month) and other status quo rejecting movements that help form the spine of performance, body art and site-specific installation. 

Not unlike Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange or Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, there's a "look away" - "don't look away" sense of terror in WS -- and the intoxicating psyschology of attraction/repulsion.

McCarthy is totally dispossessed of any of the culty weirdness that surrounded Muehl (although a fair number of family members are credited in this work) aligning himself more closely to Duchampian voyeurism and Warhol's leveling of the aesthetic experience.  

You might despise the spectacle of WS, reject its prurient excesses, or find it a complete repudiation of a thousand aesthetic precepts, but you'll still want to see this installation, on view through August 4.

And take it from me, no matter how cool you think your kids are, leave them at home.

That's all folks.

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