I went to Paul McCarthy’s White Snow installation prepared to like it. Disney’s Snow White is now over 75, and who can blame the art world for wanting to engage in a take-down of what has to be the iconic fairy-tale figure, the girl who represents everything wrong with once upon a time? Cheerful, cute, and infatuated with good housekeeping, Snow White also becomes an exhibitionist, her beauty on display as she awaits the kiss from Prince Charming.
Here’s a summary of what you will find:
The twisted form of White Snow lies naked on the dirty carpet with what appears to be blood on her face, but a discarded brown Hershey’s squeeze bottle on a molested couch provides the real evidence. A bloody, naked Walt Paul slumps with a cartoon character protruding from his open mouth shows that all is not what it seems in this dark fantasy. Moving through the space will offer more clues, which are featured in the accompanying films — giant mirror images creating an alarming echo chamber of bawdy cartoonish desire, resulting in violent death.
I’m the first to admit that there is a Gothic dark side to fairy tales. White Snow distorts and deforms the confections of mass culture to represent, in graphic terms, the violence and dysfunctionality lurking beneath the surface of the nuclear family and its domestic shrines.
I’m sure Paul McCarthy will be pleased with my sense of repulsion as I viewed the mess he had made. But before long the cacophony blaring from the speakers makes you commiserate with the museum guards, the multiple screens projecting images of dancing dwarfs and writhing SnowWhites quickly turns boring, and the rectangular peepholes into the disorderly domestic spaces make you want to say: “Yes, I get it, I am a voyeur, and you are trying to assault me with these images and make me feel that art should be disturbing and painful.” To add to the multiple ironies, McCarthy has added a gift shop capitalizing on Disney merchandise.
To sum up: I’d rather be a critical viewer of Disney’s Snow White than a complicit spectator of McCarthy’s White Snow.
Below some fascinating background from Randy Kennedy, who quotes Paul McCarthy as saying: “We take it somewhere.” I wish he had.
This Snow White would not follow much of a fairy-tale narrative — no evil queen, no magic mirror, no resurrection through a prince’s love. At one point, two of the Snow Whites, most of the dwarves and McCarthy lay in a moaning, panting, undulating pile on the living-room floor that McCarthy intended as a visual echo of an image in Jack Smith’s 1963 underground transvestite romp, “Flaming Creatures.”
“It’s not about sex,” he told me of his own scene. “It’s about basic human contact. It’s about hanging onto someone else for dear life.”
When they finished, McCarthy hopped up and seemed barely out of breath. He was practically glowing. “O.K., we take five and then we’ll go again,” he announced. “Like yesterday, we’ll kind of start this as a see-where-it-goes. Then we amp it up. We take it somewhere.”
And from the program:
“McCarthy is known for challenging, visceral work in a variety of mediums–from performance, photography, video and installation, to sculpture, drawing, and painting–and scales ranging from tiny to monumental. Playing on popular illusions, delusions, and cultural myths, his work is created to deliberately confuse codes, mix high and low culture, and provoke an analysis of our fundamental beliefs.”
And here is another perplexed critic:
What all this means, I don’t exactly know, although it obviously touches on regret for lost innocence and on a recoil from — and a satirist’s relish of — a homegrown plague of give-us-more-pleasure that has spread to much of the world. What I suspect is that in Mr. McCarthy we have a Swift for our time, or maybe a Hieronymus Bosch, and in “WS” — organized by the Armory’s artistic director, Alex Poots, and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, in association with Tom Eccles — a scabrous American “Garden of Earthly Delights.”