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Jerry Saltz on the Armory’s (Very, Very Dirty) Paul McCarthy Show

Paul McCarthy's building-filling video and sculptural installation at the Park Avenue Armory opened last night. In it, videos depict actors, costumed and not, playing the roles of Walt Disney characters like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. One Dwarf is called "Too Happy"; another, seeming to copulate with a roast chicken, is named "Humpey (Humper)." There's a button-nosed naked Snow White who mumbles things, washes out the mouth of an actor playing Walt Disney, and is sexually preyed upon by the male actors in this demented nightmare drama. There's even someone who looks like a porn actor committing obscene acts with a naked rubber manikin.

As predictable as clockwork, the New York Post — the Sarah Palin of newspapers — has already gone the full Rupert on McCarthy's show in two scathing pieces (one ostensibly a straight news story, the other an opinion column). The shocked and appalled writer of one story carried on about the installation, calling it "demented, debauched and just plain dirty." She seemed upset that we should have to pay $15 to see it. The other lamented, "Where is the Honorable Rudolph Giuliani when we need him?" and mentioned taxpayers and taxes no fewer than twenty times in a fairly short column. He or she was furious that McCarthy "lampoons the American dream and its cherished icons." How dare he! These folks sure know how to put out a call for pitchforks.

Well, I saw McCarthy's WS, as the whole thing is called (his reversal of Snow White’s initials). I did not like it much, but not because it is "demented, debauched and just plain dirty." It is. Very. It depicts simulated sex, male and female rape fantasies, crazy characters doing crazy things, the dark side of the id. I will say that I’m awed by the spectacle and scale of the thing. McCarthy's ability to occupy and take over space, even the most impressive interior in New York City, is undeniable, impressive, singular. I doubt that anyone has ever been able to do this to this extent in this space before. There are winding corridors of life-size film sets, and if you look up at the many screens, you can immediately deduce that what is seen on the screens was filmed in these sets. (The detritus from the shoot is still in place: There are kitchens filled with splattered food, and bedrooms that are torn apart.) My favorite part by far is the huge floor-to-ceiling artificial forest that dominates the center of the hall. The towering trees made of sprayed foams are fantastical, excremental, imaginative, and elemental sculptures.

However, except for the "dirty" parts, or maybe even with them, WS struck me as hokey, something that might almost be at home in the center of the Mall of America, or any theme park, or haunted house. McCarthy is a great artist. (I have been a fan since the eighties, and his current video and sculptural installation at Hauser & Wirth — it shows a naked woman in the excruciating and elusive process of being perfectly cast in some sort of blue resin — takes you deep into the human psyche. A masterpiece.) WS is an amazing catalogue of many of his themes, obsessions, and ideas. But the work's only amazing part — and it’s no small sculptural feat — is its ability to bomabard you into a daze. Except for the amazing attention paid to every detail and the sheer size of it, all the rooms blend one into another.

There's a long history of fairy tales being not just scary but actually sexual, involving adult romps, cannibalism, chaos, torture — the whole nine-yards of our twisted inner lives. McCarthy is trying to tap into that. He always has, sometimes fantastically well. This time, that drilling down didn't strike the darkness (except in the Post). One very tony Upper East Side lady pulled me aside at the opening and whispered, "What's shocking about all this is how un-shocking it is. It's just standard clowning around." She’s right.

But shock is good business. Pining for Giuliani and wanting to censure the work because taxpayers partly fund the Armory reminds me of what Fran Lebowitz said about taxes: "We don't get a line-item veto in life like that." Pacifists have to pay for the Pentagon; prudes get art that offends them. Right-wing talk-radio hosts are always yelling at callers who disagree with them, "If you don't like it, don't listen." I’ll say the same to the Post, which is just being its normal lame-stream-media self.

Photo: Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth /Photo by Joshua White