When I entered the Whitney’s Paul McCarthy exhibit, a gaggle of kids was anxiously crawling around on the exposed wooden platform of Bang Bang Room (1992). After a long wait, the four walls hanging open on huge hinges slowly swung in, each with a mechanical door that repeatedly opened and then banged shut. The notions that swirled through my mind—door-slamming arguments in claustrophobic apartments, vengeful ghosts—were lost on the youngsters reveling in the breezy pandemonium. They also enjoyed the whining servo motors and groaning brakes of Mad House (1999/2008), which features a chair set inside a room-size cube, each rotating in varying directions at high speeds, like a particularly brutal astronaut-training device. There’s little hint in this exhibition of the scatological deluges of ketchup, chocolate, and mayonnaise for which the artist is notorious, although the black-and-white video Whipping a Wall and a Window With Paint (1974) offers a visceral record of McCarthy slapping a ragged, paint-soaked cloth all over an abandoned antiques shop. The piece ends with the shirtless artist winded and splattered, his torso appearing flayed from his Oedipal challenge to the previous generation’s action painters. Similarly, the grainy 16mm projection of Spinning Camera, Walking (1971) captures bright venetian blinds flashing by in overexposed blurs, a soft radiance that would recall the ineffable limbo of a Rothko canvas but for the anxious centrifugal pan, which turns it into a luminous purgatory. In Spinning Room, cameras revolve on a central platter, their live feed of viewers projected onto four wall-size surrounding screens. Our contemporary surveillance society may make these gyrating doppelgängers feel old hat, but McCarthy gets points for prescience: Although the installation wasn’t realized until this year, the piece was conceived in 1971. Like whirling on a carnival ride till you puke, McCarthy nails the fault line between sensation and agitation, ushering us into an American funhouse where liberty is mirrored by queasy excess.
Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: Aug. 20. Continues through Oct. 12, 2008