vendredi 12 juillet 2013

The same old Disney sex parties...

Browsing through this summer's gallery listings I was delighted to see that Hauser & Wirth in New York had the bright idea of devoting their whole programme to the work of Paul McCarthy as well as a new show at the Armory. Now well into his 70s, you'd expect this to be a retrospective for the artworld's enfant terrible – but no, he has put together his most ambitious work to date.

McCarthy has been a long term art-hero of mine so much so that I dedicated my entire university dissertation to his work. You can understand why I was excited to see not one, but four brand new shows (one of which: 'Rabble Dabble Babble', I have not written about here). For those less familiar with Paul McCarthy's work, it is hard to catalogue in terms of painting, sculpture, installation or any other well-versed 'practice'.  He does however have a distinct aesthetic; one of debauchery, transgression and the abject.

With this in mind, the first couple of shows were quite a surprise. Rather than the screaming, visceral madness I have come to expect from his installations and performance videos, the 'Life Casts' (Upper East gallery) and 'White Snow Sculptures' (Chelsea) offered refined, highly polished objects in quiet and typically reserved galleries. 'Life casts' is exactly that – a series of perfect replicas of Paul McCarthy's body and some versions of the female actress he works with in his videos, Elysa Poppers. Every single detail is life-like down to the individual hairs, wrinkles and freckles. The 'White Snow Sculptures' are giant models of a snow white figurine – all perfectly laser cut from (obviously) very expensive walnut. I can't say that I found any of this work particularly interesting in and of itself, the high precision negates any room for expression or improvisation. These works, felt as though they were merely props in the grander scheme of things....I found myself wondering, what is he up to?

Things became clearer when I went to visit the Armory for McCarthy's biggest show to date: 'White Snow'. A massive stage set with a recreation of a magical forest and a version of his childhood home in the middle. Around the edges of the huge drill hall space were several massive projections of a 7 hour documentation of the main performance. As you may have guessed from the title, the theme was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, or more importantly a subversion of 'Disney' and everything that it stands for. McCarthy plays the part of Walt Disney or 'Walt Paul' (as he calls himself) orchestrating an initially civilised dinner party, which inevitably devolves gradually into a drunken, orgiastic and violent tragedy.
The themes he deals with are nothing new – paternal conditioning, excess, masks, performing architecture...the list goes on. It is as though he has piled all of his well-versed tropes explored through previous work into one giant show and simply Disney-fied this version. I suppose in a way it is a kind of retrospective.

Some critics have termed White Snow a 'Gesamtkunstwerk' or 'total art work' - making use of all art forms at once...and it is exactly this completeness that I have issue with.

For me, art succeeds when something is missing or more accurately something is undefinable. It is a fine balance between this openness and the artist's intention, but it is essential nonetheless. Finitude equates to the birth and death of the idea at once, it leaves no room for germination, no room to converse and we're left with something that simply stakes its place in the world. Whereas previous examples of McCarthy's work hinted at disorientation, here we have actual drunkenness, where he would once suggest sexual acts with props and metaphor, a porn star (Prince Charming) literally has his way with a mannequin in the forest. Unlike Disney, nothing is left to the imagination – and that's exactly the problem.

Perhaps I'm being unfair but I have my suspicions that McCarthy has gradually lost his way on his ascension to art-world stardom. Unfortunately, like his clumsy Walt persona, his metaphors and references have become overworked and a little tired. Don't get me wrong, I still think he is one of the best visual artists going, but perhaps I don't know if I can call him 'contemporary' any more...I'm sorry Paul - please prove me wrong!

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