Paul McCarthy, White Snow Placemat, 2014, pencil on paper place mat, 9 1/2 × 14". From the six-part suite White Snow Placemat Drawing, WS, 2013–14.

Paul McCarthy, White Snow Placemat, 2014, pencil on paper place mat, 9 1/2 × 14". From the six-part suite White Snow Placemat Drawing, WS, 2013–14.

Paul McCarthy

Paul McCarthy, White Snow Placemat, 2014, pencil on paper place mat, 9 1/2 × 14". From the six-part suite White Snow Placemat Drawing, WS, 2013–14.

White Snow Placemat Drawings, WS, 2013–14, a set of six scallop-edged paper place mats, each depicting an assortment of quickly drawn, naked, dripping, hairy figures engaged in various acts of dominance or submission, set the tone for this simultaneously abject and exuberant show. The coffee and grease stains absorbed into the paper fibers of the place mats evoke bodily fluids discharged by the penciled figures inhabiting the indeterminate pictorial spaces that crowd the savaged found supports. These works were among the fifty-seven included in what was—somewhat unbelievably—Paul McCarthy’s first solo show in Chicago, staged as part of a four-month program of exhibitions and events organized in celebration of the Renaissance Society’s centennial anniversary. The show featured four large drawings hung amid a field of small, energetic works on paper, all culled from McCarthy’s “White Snow” series (2008–), which had previously erupted into a climactic installation at the Park Avenue Armory in New York in 2013. Just as McCarthy inverted “Snow White” into “White Snow,” this exhibition upended our understanding of McCarthy by foregrounding the pleasurable, ecstatic energies of drawing over and above the artist’s darker interrogations of cultural norms.

Another work, consisting of six drawings framed and mounted in two rows of three, White Snow, Walt Paul, Mammoth, WS, 2012 (featuring White Snow’s male partner, “Walt Paul,” an amalgamation of a fictionalized McCarthy persona and Walt Disney), evokes a cinematic relationship to narrative, as if the drawings were successive cells from the same film strip. The drawing mounted in the upper-left corner depicted a detailed rendering of Walt Paul’s head awkwardly attached to a generic body in the act of mounting a log. A single erect branch emerges from the tree trunk just below the figure’s bare ass. Among the cursory pencil lines suggesting grass, the word walt is scribbled. In the successive drawings, the tree fucking continued and White Snow entered the scene. On bended knees she sucks on a protrusion emerging from the trunk. The concluding sketch is less a Disney debasement than a romantic adaptation of a Delacroix motif depicting a lifeless heroine held in the arms of an anguished male.

Many of the drawings featured text juxtaposed with the figures. In White Snow, Part 2, Couch, 5, WS, 2013, McCarthy’s cursive scrawl at the top of the paper states, THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT IS FAMILIAR, FAMILIAR AND FOREIGN AT THE SAME TIME, ATTRACTED YET REPULSED AT THE SAME TIME BY AN OBJECT, EVENT. Below these words are three sets of figures comprising a scribble of a woman sitting on top of a man’s head, alternately shitting and shoving a bottle down the male figure’s throat. While exploring seriality and inviting narrative projections, the drawings also expresses a genuine enthusiasm for the act of mark-making. McCarthy’s alternating use of broken and continuous contours demonstrates his interest in control of the hand. This was most evident in the marker-on-paper sketches depicting a squatting, defecating White Snow. Here the dense felt-tip pen slipped fluidly over the support’s slick surface, allowing the hand to set up a seductive rhythm between the act of drawing and the act being depicted. This drawing loosely hangs together, its transgressive action, intimated by the text, made unambiguous only through repetition. Here the written notes underscored McCarthy’s slow and deliberate approach to his subject matter. Taken cumulatively, the works subvert the rules of propriety while suggesting elated impatience with picture making.

The four monumental works on view achieved their power not through their subject matter, but instead via their compositional resonance and sheer physicality. These masterful works vertically punctuated the linear distribution of the smaller framed drawings ringing the Renaissance Society’s gallery. Incorporating collage elements on paper sheets and (in one case) a massive pieced-together paper support, they have more in common with McCarthy’s “White Snow” paintings exhibited at Hauser & Wirth London in 2014 than with the small-scale works on paper that flanked them. The collages’ layering of found material culled from tabloids and pornographic magazines creates a palpable density of graphic signifiers—closely aligned to the collages of Rauschenberg and de Kooning. Yet the small drawings offered us an intimate and transparent peek into McCarthy’s imagination before it became hyperindulgent and bombastically base. And better yet, they gave us permission to consider our own “perverted” musings as potential forms of cultural resistance.

Michelle Grabner