The McCarthy era of post-war America in the late 1940s had its eyes firmly set on all things communist, as well as an Orwellian attitude towards subversive behavior. Namesake and bastard child of the era Paul McCarthy however, has his eyes set on all things perverse and fucked up in American culture. His massive exhibition WS (White Snow) at the Armory in New York strongly reminded me of this. The title—Snow White inverted as WS—reverbrates with a perversity that would have that other McCarthy—Joe—rolling in his grave.
Paul McCarthy’s targets are the institutions of post-war America, with Disney’s Snow White as his perfect fit. The Disney version embodies familiar McCarthyesque motifs, from latent sexuality and nature as malevolence (the enchanted forest), to Snow White’s rotoscoped normal body contrasted with the not-so-normal cartoon bodies of the dwarves. All of these themes are amplified and exaggerated by McCarthy in this perverted Disneyland.
WS also says something about the art world in New York. As much as New York loves to think of itself as the centre of the art world, and while Chelsea’s art galleries deal more in contemporary art as interior design for SoHo lofts, McCarthy’s perverse visions seem incompatible and uncompromising. His sprawling, manic, and body-obsessed projects seem entirely removed from such a commercial framework. Indeed, McCarthy’s work really has nothing to do with the New York art world: his milieu is the constructed realities of Hollywood, Disneyland and Los Angeles, while his work is represented in New York by Swiss gallerist Hauser and Wirth. New York seems alien to McCarthy’s world view, all of which contributes to the off-kilter and wacked-out lens onto the world that McCarthy’s WS offers.
There is indeed something surreal about encountering McCarthy’s psycho-sexual obsessions in New York’s exclusive Upper East Side Armory. To find more of McCarthy’s work in Hauser and Wirth’s Upper East Side gallery is even more surreal, and the recuperation of McCarthy’s deeply fucked up projects by some of the world’s leading commercial galleries is interesting, to say the least. For years, McCarthy was the guy who covered himself in ketchup, mayonnaise and chocolate sauce, sticking Barbie dolls up his arse, in a variety of transgressive and underground performances like Class Fool (1976). McCarthy is now, as a result, the poster boy for perversion in American contemporary art, which is evidence that any kind of avant-garde and transgressive impulse is ultimately co-opted and tolerated by the mainstream art world, given enough time.
One of my favourite scenes in one of the many videos of WS features McCarthy as a deranged Walt Disney—or Walt McCarthy—cavorting around with his dwarves while he humps a Campbell’s Soup can. Where Warhol presented the embodiment of post-war canned food as superficial iconic banal reality, McCarthy’s own obsession with the foodstuffs of mass culture is different in fixation. His exploration of all things interior is manifested by what’s inside the can. What’s inside US mass culture—the chocolate sauce bottle, the mayonnaise jar—become replacements for leaky bodily fluids. McCarthy conceptualises the mythology and interiority of Snow White as a flayed body, revealing a darker, disturbing and uncompromising version of this sugary-sweet Disney fable. Ultimately, Snow White could be interpreted as a stand-in for America, a fantasy reality of virginal innocence, family morals, conformity and purity that has all gone to hell.
Finally, and possibly most importantly, is the question: where are the exhibitions of McCarthy’s work in Australia? I can count six exhibitions that have included McCarthy’s work over the last few decades here. For years, US art institutions didn’t know what to do with him, being such a messy artist after all. Even after he first gained success in Europe, it wasn’t until years later that US galleries and museums started to take notice. Often cited as an ‘artists’ artist’ (whatever that means), McCarthy’s influence has certainly had an impact amongst Australian artists, but, oddly, his work is still seen nowhere near enough here. Hopefully after the phenomenon of WS, McCarthy’s unfettered intensity and perversions will spread to Australian art institutions. Somehow, I am not holding my breath.
Ian Haig is an artist based in Melbourne.