If one is to view Paul McCarthy’s latest large-scale exhibit at the Paul Avenue Armory as a treatise on the mass corporatisation of Disney then, well, he must hold them pretty low esteem. With “WS”, the 67-year-old Californian artist has combined long-form video, intricate interactive sets, and lifelike model work into a sort of hardcore phantasmagoria that defies explanation. McCarthy’s installation has set up shop in the massive former drill hall on Park Avenue and is made up for two wide-length cinema screens, multiple sideshow rooms, extra viewing platforms, school desks for seating, as well as the set on which the over 7 hours of film was staged. Amongst the set is a house that all but reeks of rotting food and sexual depravity – art directed to within an inch of its life, no doubt – and an excessively fake forest illuminated by green, red, blue, and yellow spotlights.
McCarthy has taken the story of Snow White and the seven dwarves and morphed it into something akin to Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers. Filled with perverse sexual acts and pornographic representations of pop culture idols, it’s certainly an unconventional way to spend several hours. The scale of the piece would require at least two full days to take it all in. I spent roughly four hours attempting to take in McCarthy’s warped vision and that still feels extravagant. The video portions of the piece are repetitive and numbing in their oddness. I appreciated some, couldn’t comprehend others.
McCarthy himself plays a character called ‘Walt Paul’, which could only be misinterpreted by squirrels. He wields a sadomasochistic knife over the proceedings like a maniacal puppet master. “Neither daughter, sister, no friend”, he tells White Snow. “You shall be no more than my slave.” You can see where this is going. While the story follows that of the 1937 to a degree, it eventually descents into a free-flowing near plotless collection of fetish fulfilments. White Snow, played by Elyse Poppers – she has a small acting career with video game voice work and short films credited on IMDb – covers her face and body with food (Walt soon joins in), experiments sexually with all sorts of acts and fluids, and desecrates the famous red, blue and yellow costume that is White’s signature. Meanwhile, the dwarves with their comically bulbous artificial noses, who, from what I could tell, were not all played by short-statured actors, hi ho hi ho their way off to work during the day wearing sweatshirts of UCLA and Yale, before coming home to a sty of filth and depravity.
The video sideshows take place in inter-connected rooms off to the side of the Armory’s main stage. They feature more food-related video, but most predominantly feature a sub-video called “The Prince Comes” in which three male porn actors masturbate in the forest before having sex with a lifelike body form (a prop which is displayed in a glass cabinet outside). It’s incredibly odd, and only fleetingly arousing, especially since the high-pitched snow motion soundscape from next door bleeds into it.
The set of the Armory is decorated in carpets sourced from Disneyland hotels with ornate patterns that only occasionally intersect, which I guess is a good metaphor for the show in the way it only fleetingly intersects with the original source material. As a highly sexualised take on the material – upon entering the building there are multiple signs signally its adults only nature – I guess it works as a kin to the gloomy Snow White and the Huntsman and the cartoonish Mirror Mirror. It’s a take that certainly just as valid as those two recent cinematic interpretations, although I found it just as successful as the former (I am actually a very big fan of Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror). That McCarthy wanted to subvert the material is obvious, but the execution is frequently frustrating and unfocused. Perhaps a tighter reign could have made it more successful, but I certainly can’t picture many people finding the stamina to stay for the entire opening hours.
The show features many of the hallmarks of being pretentious and those who struggle with more outré art will not only find much to dislike, but outright hate. Many will be disgusted and will find its bombardment of sexual imagery, especially when it utilises just famous child-friendly property like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, off-putting. I can’t disagree with them, although I did find myself eager to try and seek out a meaning beyond the obvious. I’m not sure I came across one, but it certainly provoked a lot of thought from me so perhaps McCarthy succeeded if his mission was to merely confound and make people consider the way we ingest mass culture. One could call it a nightmare vision, but that would imply that anybody other than McCarthy could have come up with visions such as these awake or not.
Throughout I recalled the likes of Andy Warhol, David Lynch, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle, and Guy Maddin’s Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. If one cared to partake in seven hours of the project then it’d be recommended they alternate between the main feature and the side shows. The various viewing platforms also aid in making the repetitive footage more palatable over the longterm. I admired its scope and its ambition and I definitely recommend the show to anybody who wants to experience something very much out of the ordinary, but it’s also not entirely wrongheaded to wish this time-consuming has something a bit more substantial to offer. If little else, one likely won’t look at cheese slices the same.