Walt Disney’s Snow White bends her head to perform fellatio on… No, wait… It is Dopey’s head she has taken in her mouth and this is not Snow White, but White Snow, the lascivious doppelganger of the Disney princess with whom Paul McCarthy has been preoccupied since late 2008. Over the course of the past decade, McCarthy has repeatedly taken the beloved 1937 animated classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as subject, exploiting it in several different series of drawings, sculptures, installations, films, and more. Throughout, he has twisted and perverted the tale, subjecting it to intense psychosexual scrutiny as well as to the abject sensibility that has long characterized his art. Also playing major roles are dark humor, art history, and autobiography, the artist often performing in his work and referencing (i.e., reacting against) his Mormon upbringing. Among McCarthy’s aims in looking to Hollywood classics and cultural icons like Disney’s Snow White is to expose their dark sides and underbellies. He reveals the manner in which they foster stereotypes and whitewash reality.
In his vast filmic and sculptural installation WS [White Snow] presented at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in 2013, a forest of flowers and trees surrounded a facsimile of McCarthy’s childhood home, the interior of which was strewn with refuse, splattered with fluids, and inhabited by naked male and female corpses. In segments of a 7-hour-long film that were projected on screens suspended overhead as well as on the Armory’s walls, White Snow and the dwarfs grotesquely debased themselves, engaging in sexual acts, defecating, and more. Taking on the persona of Walt Paul, a surrogate for Walt Disney, McCarthy engaged in an Oedipal courtship with White Snow, one involving sex, degradation, shtick, and his and White Snow’s eventual deaths.
When considered in relation to the Armory’s WS and many of McCarthy’s previous and subsequent exhibitions, the artist’s current show at Hauser and Wirth in Los Angeles is tame–G rather than R rated. Made up of “WS Spinoffs,” it is the first presentation of McCarthy’s work in the gallery’s L.A. space, which was inaugurated in March 2016. The spinoffs, which were executed in collaboration with his son, Damon McCarthy, and range in date from 2011 to 2015, are of two types: carved, highly polished black walnut sculptures, some on monumental scale, and wall-hung pieces referred to as “Brown Rothkos.” The latter are carpets that bear the accumulated residue of the foam and plastic resin sprayed on the trees that made up the forest at the Armory. While some of the randomly formed abstract patterns and textures are pleasing to the eye, these works do not engage narrative content or criticality in the manner of McCarthy’s best work (although their dominant brown coloration is the artist’s usual indicator of excrement).
The nine black walnut sculptures are derived from collectable Disney figurines that the artist scanned and digitally reconfigured (in a few, the ornamentation on the bases of the figurines is preserved). McCarthy’s designs were then carved using CNC (computer numerical control) machines and meticulously sanded and finished to have smooth, rich brown, gleaming surfaces. The sculptures feature White Snow and Dopey alone or in tandem, or White Snow (the proverbial “damsel in distress”) together with the rescuing prince (her “white knight”) on horseback. In most of these sculptures, the forms of the three characters variously stutter and repeat, one growing out of and merging into the next, in a manner that recalls sequences of animation cells used to show figures in motion. It is therefore not just the subject matter, but the very mechanics of Disney films that are called into play. The doubling, trebling, reversal, and mirroring of the forms activate not only the sculptures, but also the viewer, who needs to experience them in the round.
In White Snow, Erection, the form of the horse is turned this way and that in a tumbling of bodies. White Snow’s mouth is open in seeming orgiastic ecstasy, while the prince’s head rises out of itself in a manner evoked by the title. In the imposing twins, WS, Bookends, 2013, enmeshed and mutated forms of the fairy tale couple on horseback are seen in two orientations, each resting on a different flat edge. That McCarthy refers to these works as “Wood Statues,” rather than sculptures, testifies to his desire to have trifles of Disney theme park merchandising stand in line with the grand tradition of equestrian statuary. Its subject matter and mirrored form notwithstanding, WS, White Snow Flower Girl #2 evokes classical Greek statues of nude and draped goddesses.
McCarthy riffs upon art historical conventions and, over the past few decades, his work has often parodied the saccharine kitsch and the commercialism of Jeff Koons’ art. Coincidentally, a Jeff Koons exhibition concurrently on view at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills offers the opportunity to (very briefly) consider the two artists in tandem. Along with numerous Gazing Ball Series paintings, the Koons exhibition features a few of the artists’ meticulously rendered plaster copies of classical statues (i.e., the Farnese Hercules and Barberini Fawn), each with a blue mirrored-glass gazing ball, and several over-life-size enlargements of porcelain figurines rendered in mirror-finished stainless steel. In their grand scale, gorgeous execution, and appropriated imagery, the work of the two artists is akin. However, to my mind, Koons’ work takes as its subject the commerce of art. His gaudy baubles, each valued at a million dollars and more, challenge notions of taste and worth (including the pricelessness of icons of classical art) while literally reflecting (via mirrored surfaces) the vanity of its purchasers.
McCarthy’s work also commands impressive prices and often challenges “good taste,” but it digs far below socio-economic layers to address base human instincts. Koons’ range of reference is wide, but the Los Angeles-based artist has long maintained Disney and Hollywood films as points of revision, psychoanalysis and dark commentary. Rather than the commerce of art, among McCarthy’s primary subjects is the commerce of film and its power to shape experience. As he has said,
“Hollywood film is a populous medium along with its cousin the adult entertainment world, primarily financial and profit motivated. Giving the population what it desires and what it is conditioned to want. The dream machine. Art as a dangling participle”*
*McCarthy quoted in the press release for Rebel Dabble Rabble at The Box, 2012.