There’s nothing more stubbornly middle-of-the-road than shock art. Like inflexible suburban Baptists and food co-op rules committees, purveyors of this trying trend insist on viewing reality in stark black and white. Such a worldview mistakenly invests cultural symbols with magical powers they will never possess: among them, the ability to turn so-called normal behaviors into their radical opposite. Robert Mapplethorpe’s gorgeous homoerotic photos from the 1990s, for instance, hardly resulted in a national outbreak of fisting. Thirty years after the culture wars, few creative conceits prove more conformist and less transgressive than the tired, through-the-looking-glass fairy tale of shock art.
Consider Gotham’s current binge of outrage art as disgorged by this season’s Karen Finley: veteran L.A. artist Paul McCarthy. Like the heat and humidity affecting New York’s dog days, McCarthy’s dirty-uncle routine is inescapable, thanks largely to Hauser & Wirth, the artist’s Swiss-based, powerhouse gallery. A deep-pocketed apotheosis that has featured four large-scale exhibitions and two temporary public sculptures since May (a turdy 80-foot balloon dog on Randall’s Island and a massive twisted bronze on the West Side Highway), McCarthy’s ongoing local blitz exceeds the multiple exhibition profile of every big-money artist in recent memory—that includes Richard Serra, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons, the man Stephen Colbert once justly pegged as “the world’s most expensive birthday clown.”
An operation conducted with all the political delicacy of a Halliburton no-bid contract—the artist’s largest installation involved his gallery hauling 80 tractor-trailers full of his messy wares into Manhattan—McCarthy’s not-so-subtle attempt at an East Coast takeover has produced little in the way of controversy (save the usual New York Post rants), much flat-footed magazine description (the art world’s bewildered default mode), and plenty of head-scratching (on evidence among stunned rubberneckers at McCarthy’s various venues). Still, like Bank of America, McCarthy’s NC-17 juggernaut appears too big to fail. In the current go-along-to-get-along climate, a great deal of opinion about the value of millionaire art gets drowned out by the clatter of the market’s churn.
On view still among McCarthy’s portfolio of gross-out exhibitions (the public sculptures and a show of Disney-based statues carved from walnut were packed up in June) are “Life Cast,” a set of life-size nude sculptures of the artist and the porn actress Elyse Poppers (at Hauser & Wirth’s uptown space), and a massive 12-channel video installation titled “Rebel Dabble Babble” (at the gallery’s cavernous Chelsea digs). The first is a remarkably realistic if lifeless demonstration of special effects know-how (the sculptures were fabricated by a Hollywood specialist); the latter, an unsublimated mess of expensively constructed and shot gibberish (it includes a lot of yelling and finger-banging) starring McCarthy, Poppers, and, very briefly, the actor James Franco (bet you saw that coming). In a nutshell, neither conscientiously pornographic exhibition coheres in any way except as proof of McCarthy’s textbook obsession with Oedipal authority. Predictably, both shows wear their price tag on their sleeve—and with hardly a merkin in sight.
Same goes but double for McCarthy’s football-field-size film-and-sculpture installation, “WS,” housed inside the humongous drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory. The largest of the McCarthy spectacles this summer, the show’s epic dimensions include an enchanted forest, a three-quarter-scale version of the artist’s own childhood home, and several drive-in movie screens playing seven hours’ worth of shrieking vignettes involving sexual humiliation, psychological trauma, pissing, vomiting, and food fights. Constructed around an “exploration” of Walt Disney’s Snow White, McCarthy’s “White Snow” (get it?) is intended, according to the artist, as “a program of resistance” against “normalcy.” “It will fuck you up,” McCarthy said in a recent interview. But certainly no more than the deeply clichéd mock-shocks enacted by this ultimately well-mannered artist. An especially apt phrase comes to mind for McCarthy’s latest fantasies—Mickey Mouse de Sade.