A cacophony of low groans and high-pitched squeaks greets visitors entering WS (2013), Los Angeles art luminary Paul McCarthy's installation at the Park Avenue Armory (through Aug. 4). Recasting Walt Disney's Snow White as a grotesque spectacle, McCarthy has transformed the Armory's 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall into a theatrical world of all-American perversity. Following his 80-foot-tall, Jeff Koons-style balloon dog at this year's Frieze New York art fair, and accompanied by gallery shows at both of Hauser & Wirth's New York locations (through July 13), WS is the centerpiece of McCarthy's current conquest of Gotham, and an undertaking whose scale and ambition rivals anything Disney could accomplish.
Evoking the familiar wonderland of Disney films and amusement parks, a luridly lit fantasy forest fills the Armory's drill hall, replete with realistic undergrowth, piped-in bird songs and knobby plastic trees. At the forest's center is the quintessential fairy tale "cottage in the woods," in this case a three-quarter-scale replica of McCarthy's childhood home in 1950s Utah. The installation is ringed by stage lights and elevated a few feet to reveal its underlying Styrofoam and metal supports, underscoring the pervasive artifice.
The Armory has taken care to warn visitors of adult content, barring entry to those younger than 17. The reasons for this caution are immediately clear as a chorus of groans and grunts interrupts any sense of idyll created by the simulated pastoral scene. Looming over McCarthy's magical kingdom is a multi-channel, seven-hour film following the exploits of "White Snow," a fairytale princess, or, more precisely, a pack of feral princesses who share a name, costumes and an apparent fetish for balloons. The cast also includes the seven dwarves, plus two extra (Too Happy, and Humpey, aka Humper), and McCarthy as "Walt Paul," an amalgamation of Walt Disney, Hitler and the artist himself.
Multiple prolonged visits would be necessary to grasp the film's epic scope. Much of it, however, depicts a series of increasingly bacchanalian dinner parties. At one fever pitch of drunken riotousness, the group fellates Koons-esque balloon dogs while moaning at a keening pitch. Several members of the party, many clad in nothing but oversized UCLA sweatshirts, proceed to mime ejaculation, showering Dopey with red silly string. The others look on while compulsively rubbing balloons between their legs.
The calmer moments also manage to be anxiety-inducing. McCarthy's performance as Walt Paul, the doddering but sexually menacing elder patriarch with a bulbous nose and a '50s-era suit, turns even the act of setting a table into a fest of angry muttering that seems to teeter on the edge of violence.
The term Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art," appears frequently in the WS press literature, and the exhibition blends film, sculpture, music and performance. Party detritus depicted in the film litters the re-created McCarthy home. Plastic sculptures of nude Walt Paul and White Snow figures, including a silicone "life cast" of the latter, also populate the forest installation. (More replicas of both the actress who plays the main White Snow and McCarthy are on view at "Paul McCarthy: Life Cast," at Hauser and Wirth's 69th Street space, through July 13). The hall's side galleries feature additional videos, each equally pornographic: The Prince Comes shows McCarthy's version of Snow White's prince having sex with one of the plastic sculptures, while WS Microphone Dream shows White Snow fellating a boom mike wielded by Walt Paul.
Appropriately enough for an artist modeling himself after Disney, McCarthy also created a gift shop to ensnare his patrons. The store is full of official Disney Snow White-related memorabilia that has been signed and dated by "Walt Paul." That the gift shop, with its branded water bottles, Snow White dresses and boxed dolls, feels like a quiet oasis may signal McCarthy's ultimate achievement: the 67-year-old artist has managed to out-extravaganza Disney himself.