THE BLOG

McCarthy at the Armory

08/02/2013 12:56 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2013

I'm sure that they are smarter than I am -- Holland Cotter, Randy Kennedy, the rest of the critics -- who went gaga for the Paul McCarthy show, "White Snow," at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.

And don't get me wrong -- anyone who wants to take a shot at the dominant paradigm, especially via Walt Disney, is already on the bus, as far as I'm concerned.

And the Armory, so improbable until recently, with rank upon rank of soldiers staring out from its walls -- and didn't I once go to a deb party here? Something like that, in the early seventies, wasn't it? But someone figured out that this was a perfect place for showing contemporary art, and it didn't even have to pretend to be falling to pieces. It was falling to pieces, in all the right ways, though, the real thing, so it became, once the Park Avenue Armory Conservancy took over in 2006, one of the hottest places in town for anyone who can fill its open vastness.

Which Paul McCarthy does. He's filled the center of the space with a kind of dinky California-style ranch house, the kind that Disneyland pushed out of the orange groves, sixty years ago. And there's his seven-hour film, running at full screech, continually, on the front and back walls, with the particularly dirty parts to the sides, with extra warnings in case any gentle art lovers are strolling by. And it's fun, I will say, to first peek in the house, with all its little details of mid-century, truly petit-bourgeois American life: the fake Christmas tree with snow, the kitchen with all its kitsch in, the cupboards, the bottles and cans, the bathroom, the bedroom with everything standard, ready-made, nothing real and yet everything fine, functional, set up for a nice little life, comfortable, easy, and yet here, totally trashed.

But trashed! And that must have been the fun part -- the trashing, which reviews call a "bacchanalia," but I call a scene in a film. Bacchanalias are authentic, they happen; this was a prescribed piece, a set constructed to be trashed, the trashing part of a film that is a big part of McCarthy's "true Gesamtkunstwerk," as Alex Poots, Artistic Director of the Armory, calls it. I had to look that up, by the way; it means "total art work," or some variation of, a word especially dear to Wagner, who earned it.

But does McCarthy? At least here? Not that it isn't big, not that he doesn't fill the Drill Hall, but so could a high school marching band, and then what? What have you got?

"An overwhelming creation born out of the original Brothers Grimm fairytale," said Poots, but the fairytale had a stepmother, a Queen/Witch essence, and a poisoned apple, at the heart of the tale. Here we have instead a Father ["Walt Paul"], a slutty girl and the standard perverted dwarves. Wasn't that the first porn film anyone ever saw? A sort of stoned version, so naughty, even clever, in 1969?

But now? I don't know -- as far as the "shocking," x-rated images, I didn't see anything I hadn't seen before. In the movies, in the galleries, even on HBO. The dead naked bodies, the dwarves cavorting, the spread legs, even, finally, big surprise, Walt Paul/Dad making it with White Snow -- but who among us, even under seventeen alas, hasn't seen all this? All the time, everywhere? Despite the notice outside the exhibit warning that: "The exhibition includes images and themes that some visitors may find disturbing," and restricting admission "to audiences over 17," which ended up seeming more Marketing 101 than Serious-Museum responsibility, especially when you compare the work here to some of the truly breakthrough "disturbing" art, like Chris Burden's work in the 70s, the Japanese film "In the Realm of the Senses," or even, for that matter, the real Walt Disney's "Snow White."

Which in fact used to disturb me plenty when I was under seventeen. I did not, at age 7, worry about the dwarves much; they were not ambiguous, no more so than the cute little animals that twittered around. What scared me was the powerful Queen/ Witch dichotomy, with her terrifying powers of transformation, and her murder weapon, the lovely poisoned apple. This multiple diploid shifting, mother-murderer/apple-poison, has proved both horrible and resonant to children through the ages, and is the point of the story.

Not that I have a problem with McCarthy doing his own deal here at the Armory. Acting out his own issues with, of all people, the poor late Walt Disney, who, btw, I detest as much as the next guy, though not enough to really think about it, especially since what's replaced him is far worse.

But, fine, let McCarthy have his way with a dead man, give him his little house to trash, and put his son behind the camera [is this why they call him an L.A. artist?], let them put on their pre-paid, staged, so-therefore-not-a "Bacchanalia," and even let people stand around and breathe, "Heavy." But isn't it going a bit far for Holland Cotter to call him the "Swift for our time, or maybe a Hieronymus Bosch"? Doesn't that imply perhaps a more rigorous level of content? Roberta Smith, speaking of the show in the context of what she calls the current "Mine is Bigger" trend, used the words "puerile" and "infantile," which seemed to me more apt than Swiftian or Boschian. You can reread Swift; you can come back to a Bosch, and see something new each time. But once you've seen one dwarf dancing around with his pants down, or a doll with a giant penis, you've seen them all.

I know that I am on shaky ground here. Paul McCarthy has arrived. He is even salable, as Jeffrey Deitch was the first to figure, and a piece of his just went for multiple millions at auction. So maybe this is all irrelevant. Because once the art world has a money maker, and the billionaires have someone else to buy, then all critical bets are off. And I do like the way he messed up the rooms in his little house, like it a lot. Just don't consider it as having gone "far beyond the confines of the story," or really even exploring anything new in "the vast and at times distressingly dark corners of the human psyche."