Summer Shorts

Paul McCarthy, WS
The Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue @67th Street, NY, NY
June 19 – August 4, 2013
Tu/W/Th 1-8pm; F 1-10pm; Sa/Su noon-7pm

Paul McCarthy, WS, 2013, installation view of multi-channel projection. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Installation photo at Park Avenue Armory by James Ewing.

Paul McCarthy, WS, 2013, installation view of multi-channel projection. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Installation photo at Park Avenue Armory by James Ewing.

 Paul McCarthy’s elaborate installation (aka film set) with two sets of four-channel projections currently inundating the vast drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory, is neither cathartic nor amusing. Enervating, boring, repetitive, assaultive, sophomoric, WS, his satirical remake of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, strikes me as a cross between a cheap porn flic and a frat party with hired stripper, even as it nods homage to Duchamp’s Étant données. As a writer I wanted to stick it out to the end (seven hours of relentless cinematic acting out); as a survivor of sexual abuse, I wasn’t interested in going where the artist was taking me (degradation and violence). Instead, I found myself in a state of alert in McCarthy’s basement-like screening rooms along the sides of the drill hall and the balcony movie gallery on the fringe of the central set, skirting the sidelines, avoiding contact with other visitors, particularly male. 

 Like McCarthy’s giant stuffed figure in Massimiliano Gioni’s exhibition “The Encyclopedic Palace” at the Venice Biennale, this project is unzipped with its guts spilling out – a ribald Brechtian exposure of the methods of production – we see the staging and all the mechanisms of the filming process. It is an act of exposure: of social behavior and the silent conspiracy of normalcy with its mythic infusion into our psyches through mixed messages of innocence and desire imbedded in such iconic fantasies as the Disney repertoire. But is McCarthy a whistle-blower and, if so, of what: the moral hypocrisy of Disney’s “clean” image or the social fear of sexual perversion? This work seems instead the overflow of trauma itself when nausea cedes to vomiting, when excess rings in the ears to the point of passing out, when the gag order of the perpetrator is choking, when repression stops functioning and you start to sweat blood.

 Somehow society’s perversion is more extensive than dwarf characters’ masturbation with garden tools. The abuse of intimacy, the aggressive penetration of self or other goes beyond the perversion of sexual taboo to the excessive infiltration of all privacy zones: medical, economic, and social. Would the obsessive excretion of body fluids in McCarthy’s picture be but metaphor for the exaggerated excess of neoliberalism’s “benevolent” penetration: the glut of data whether collected for market research, census reports, or national security that justifies a gross amount of tax payer dollars to build data centers in Utah and legitimize the prosecution of more “leaks” and whistle blowers under espionage charges than ever before. There’s perversion in the fabric of our society all right. McCarthy hits the mark there but has he made it relevant? Is the assault worth it? He takes on the pornography of trauma in the first person as protagonist in his own film but he leaves this viewer lost in the forest: I can’t take it in and don’t find a pathway to join him.

The Whitney Museum of American Art
June 27 – September 1, 2013
W/Th/Sa/Su 11am-6pm; F 1-9pm

Robert Irwin, Scrim Veil—Black Rectangle—Natural Light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1977), 1977/2013.

Robert Irwin, Scrim Veil—Black Rectangle—Natural Light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1977), 1977/2013. Photograph © 2013 Kathleen MacQueen.

There is no landscape that is not obscure,
underneath its pleasing transparencies, if you speak to it endlessly.

Édouard Glissant, “The Thinking of the Opacity of the World”

 That opacity is synchronous – not antithetical – to transparency is poetically intimated by Édouard Glissant[1] and luminously revealed by “Scrim Veil – Black Rectangle – Natural Light” Robert Irwin’s installation created for the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum in 1977 (and reinstalled this summer in anticipation of their move downtown in 2015). First reducing the space to its own architectural emphasis: in this case, the floor, grid pattern of Breuer’s honeycomb ceiling, and slanted window on the west wall, Irwin then adds precisely two elements to accentuate a third: a transparent scrim (“Scrim Veil”), aligned with the window recess and bisecting the rectangular room along its length, and horizon line (“Black Rectangle”), marking the circumference of the room in unison with the scrim, that is, approximately eye-level.

 This sight line is critical, stabilizing our vision long enough to change expectation from seeing something to seeing anything: the third element of light (“Natural Light”) emanating from the window. Light hitting the scrim reveals the density of transparency when the veil acts not as “see through” but as a means to “see to” another space in time. Just as light’s twin is shadow, either one capable of provoking blindness or clarity, so too the veil alternates between transparency and opacity varying according to our position in relation to the light. This is a participatory space – there is little motivation to sit and meditate – yet movement is quiet, paced, and inquiring. Awareness shifts to peripheral aspects of the environment and to the threshold of thought between fixity and flexibility.

 “The perceiving mind,” Merleau-Ponty reminds us, “is an incarnated mind.” And so we grasp external reality through perception but also feel its influence internally.[2] Time stretches into abundant patience, clutter falls away. Light washes across the wall in warm greys and mutes the act of seeing into a silent gathering of indefinable reverberation. Our world expands with an infusion of intimacy. This space of nearly nothing is more than enough for dialogue: it draws me to it. I am reluctant to leave – drifting within this light, these lines – this vision, rather than isolate and protect, reminds me I am one in a world among others, reticent in my relations, yes, but also resonant as being within space and across time, speaking endlessly to the horizon, through and into a gently rippled stillness.

[1] Thanks to Frieze editor Jennifer Allen for her decision to highlight this essay in the winter 2012 edition of the magazine. See Édouard Glissant, “The Thinking of the Opacity of the World,” chapter XI from Philosophie de la relation. Poésie en étendue (Philosophy of the Relation. Poetry in extension, 2009) translated from the French by Franck Loric, reprinted in Frieze d/e 7 (Winter 2012), 77.

[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1964) The Primacy of Perception (Northwestern University Press), 3-5. We might consider this as “…the inside of the outside and the outside of the inside,” as he writes of art (164).



  1. thank you thank you thank you, for your article on paul mccarthy’s snow white! i haven’t seen it yet but i did see the installation at hauser and wirth and had similar reservations.

  2. Just got back from Paul McCarthy’s WS.

    I couldn’t help feeling I was in a porn video parlor and/or a sex/fetish club with dark nooks and hidden rooms. I was a voyeur to McCarthy’s sexual acting out. I was the voyeur in a maze of dark pornographic video rooms, men and woman, young and old sitting/standing next to me.

    I was viewing what looked like vintage porn with costumed participants to emphasize the perverse sexual activity.

    Walt Diseny, a reference to those child molesters and perverted men who surround themselves with children..?

    The Disney/Snow White aspect was not as compelling as was watching, in public, McCarthy sexually acting out.

    McCartthy is an exhibitionist… He let me into his provocative world…. My head is still spinning!

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