PRINT October 2013


Paul McCarthy’s WS at the Park Avenue Armory

Paul McCarthy, WS, 2013, mixed media. Installation view. Photo: James Ewing.

I HAD A STRANGE REACTION to Paul McCarthy’s biggest work yet, WS, 2013, which occupied the entire main-floor space at the Park Avenue Armory in New York this summer past. It was, “Get me out of here!”

I could easily avert my eyes from the giant, grotesque antiporn film playing on the west and east walls, but I couldn’t block out the disturbing and intentionally too-loud sound track that set my tinnitus abuzz. I say antiporn because, in America, pornography means appealing to prurient interests (in the lingo of the court), and for most of us McCarthy’s wild party is an excitement prophylactic. It is suggestive only in suggesting that people who are naked in the same room must be up to something truly awful. His tableaux of unattractive people doing repulsive things demonstrate the fundamental difference between obscenity and pornography.

But WS wasn’t about the film. Nothing much happens in its crapulous and unsightly orgy. It is a plotless horror flick that substitutes queasiness for terror, all chocolate and ketchup—not shit and blood—and functions as toxic wallpaper, repelling one into the installation. Between the filmic bookends lay two houses with a forest between them. It was a forest with a certain magic, resembling what the woodlands of Pandora in Avatar might become after a few centuries of toxic mutation—a sort of Thorazine version of enchanted.

If the installation had been the forest alone, I would have been charmed; but the forest was hemmed in by a house, decorated in middle-American middle-class style, then ravaged with bottles, butts, and bodily fluids, as if a party had gone berserk. Visitors looked in on the fetid scene of a fete gone wrong, maybe involving frat and sorority houses and a satanist motorcycle gang. It was too much, yet not enough. It wasn’t “Oh my God, yes!” but “Been there, done that.” The assistants must have had fun installing.

I loathe quoting “sound and fury signifying nothing,” but can think of nothing more apt. Although McCarthy is hailed as a contemporary Jonathan Swift or Hieronymus Bosch, in fact he is no great narrator or imaginer. McCarthy’s works have as much story as a middle finger. Far more than Seinfeld, they are about nothing. The determinedly perverse rehash of near-ancient idylls comes off as a sort of last-ditch fight against what Cialis ads call “ED.” Snow White, Caribbean pirates, Pinocchio, and Santa seem to have lost relevance as a demonology, no matter how much McCarthy shits on them.

Shit is shit. It has its place in art, but an even bigger place in novelties. The grace of Piero Manzoni canning his shit was the can. McCarthy’s shit is poop. He seems to have mined out the Freudian shtick yet appears unwilling to take banality to a Jungian level. There’s no story, just a tired Freudian engram. McCarthy’s riffs on Disney themes and other banalities once had some pop. They don’t replay well; his career-long obsession has lost whatever traction it once possessed. Why not give Shrek a shot?

McCarthy has always made art as a sort of sideshow with freaks and geeks, and maybe it’s too late to change. A sideshow is doomed to remain a sideshow. He has said, “I never thought of my work as shamanistic. My work is more about being a clown than a shaman.” Clowns, of course, are much scarier than shamans. Shamans always have sense of purpose in the transformation of their clients. The clown is scary because he feigns playing for us while he’s actually playing us.

I find it strange that the press and apparently the public still find McCarthy daring. Mapplethorpe was daring because there was passion in his breaking of boundaries. John Waters’s transgressions against taste were witty. But I didn’t hear anyone laughing at the Armory. McCarthy’s trespasses are nothing daring. For them to be forbidden, someone would have to want to see them. I don’t think this work was to be seen as much as physically felt—the biggest banana peel ever to grace that nutty art world.

The real significance of WS is its size—theme-park big. In making his own enormous, inflatable version of Koons’s balloon dog as well as this giant installation, McCarthy has moved into the big leagues of the art of conspicuous waste. Conspicuous consumption is the guiding beacon of fashion. Conspicuous waste is where art can compete with fashion in the biggest leisure-class sweepstakes. McCarthy brings knee-jerk potty humor to the potlatch, advancing flagrant absurdity and inutility into a new territory of entropic cynicism. Sounds like a good investment. Dante could meet Virgil in a place like McCarthy’s woods. For fifteen dollars.

Glenn O’Brien is a writer based in New York.