Paul McCarthy’s ‘WS’ and ‘James Turrell’: The spectrum of color and off-color on the East Side

(David Heald/Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York/ ) - James Turrell \

(David Heald/Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York/ ) - James Turrell \"Aten Reign,” fills the Guggenheim rotunda with light.

This is a country of mystery, a sweet land of irony. What unites our states but declining incomes and anxiety? We haven’t even got a royal baby of our own to distract us as our cities go bankrupt and children go hungry and so many, and so unbearably much, is simply going down.

The stock market has been going up.

(Joshua White/ ) - Paul McCarthy’s “WS” is an X-rated retelling of the Snow White fairy tale.
  • (Joshua White/ ) - Paul McCarthy’s “WS” is an X-rated retelling of the Snow White fairy tale.
  • (David Heald/Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York/ David Heald/Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York ) - James Turrell \

(Joshua White/ ) - Paul McCarthy’s “WS” is an X-rated retelling of the Snow White fairy tale.

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But can there be any such thing as good news anymore?

Paul McCarthy and I are a little skeptical about that. Well, he’s more skeptical than I am. His immense installation “WS,” which fills the Park Avenue Armory with a giant phony forest, assorted phony horrors on display and on video, and a very real sense of sickness — all of it tells us he’s gone well past skepticism. His view is apocalyptic. We’re living in a carnival of chaos, “WS” announces. Ours is a world of villainous trickery and moral impairment.

McCarthy, however, is no self-serious postmodernist, nor is he one of those vacant-eyed Queen of the Undead performance artists. He’s a freewheeling, eccentric Californian with a wicked sense of humor, and he targets such icons of his state as Walt Disney, Hollywood, ranch houses and the porn industry. All of these figure in “WS,” whose kinky retelling of “Snow White” takes place in a suburban tract house inhabited by Dionysian man-dwarves in UCLA hoodies.

The city’s art scene is having a California moment. A mile and a half away from the Armory, California-born James Turrell has transformed the Guggenheim Museum with an installation that rivals McCarthy’s in importance. This is his first exhibition here in 33 years, and the centerpiece of it, “Aten Reign,” fills the museum’s multi-story rotunda with changing colors of light. You could say that Turrell plays with the sunshine and mystical tendencies of his birthplace the way McCarthy romps with its kitsch, but that’s where any similarity between the two artists ends. Turrell’s work is quiet, orderly, Apollonian, and optimistic. It is also self-absorbed, and reverent to the point of sterility.

There’s nothing sacred or, God forbid, sterile in McCarthy’s work. This is the man who created inflatable poop, to the delight of headline writers attempting to top reports of how McCarthy’s giant “Complex Pile,” on display in Hong Kong, went splat in a storm last spring. There is great comic energy in the gory, X-rated “WS,” which lends it an unmistakable charm.

But it’s how McCarthy takes his battle to the body that gives the show its power.

He explodes the tale of Snow White (the show takes its name from her initials, reversed), with a seven-hour-long, four-channel video of performers playing the lost princess in full Disney costume, along with dwarves and assorted doubles. They’re in the throes of a house-trashing orgy. WS blithely plasters her decolletage with slices of bologna. She applies American cheese over her eyes. American cheese; ho ho! She’s helped in this by an avuncular Walt Paul (an amalgamation of Disney and McCarthy, played by the 67-year-old artist himself, in a bristly mustache and prosthetic nose).

Eventually everyone is naked, pouring Jack Daniel’s down one another’s gullets. Other substances follow, but the most repulsive is also the most benign: McCarthy/Walt Paul drinks tomato soup concentrate straight from the can.

Andy Warhol gave us a cold, distanced view of the Campbell’s can, neat and clean, but McCarthy takes that a few steps further. He shows us what’s inside: the curious terra cotta color, the unnatural sheen, the greasy, wet, synthetic texture. And then he takes all that glop into his body, letting it spill all over him, disgorging it and merrily gurgling it until the sight of it is just about more than you can take.

This is a minor example of what the bodies endure onscreen in “WS,” and it’s one of the few I can describe in a family newspaper. But as with every element of this engrossing installation, the effect is to make you feel, physically, something of the absurdity, inanity and horrors of American life upon which McCarthy seeks to intervene.

Take the monumental plastic forest that occupies much of the Armory’s vast drill hall: It’s set on a raised wooden platform, so as you follow the winding path through it, its painted styrofoam ground is at eye level (or at least it was for me, with my rather economical proportions). You feel dwarfed, diminished — however illogically — by the tangle of fakery above, the snapped-together rhododendrons and waxy daffodils.

In this forest, there is a model of the dwarfs’ house, elevated at a distance; it’s a copy of McCarthy’s childhood home. It looks cute and cozy, but that’s another trick of scale. This version in the forest is a miniature. At one end of the drill hall, there are full-size rooms that we can peek into, offering a startlingly realistic view of American middle-class decor. The beds are unmade, the toilet unflushed, the toothpaste uncapped. The artificial Christmas tree bears a prominent “Made in China” tag. Amid the mess on the floor is a magazine ad for Bally boots. A girl can dream, can’t she?

It all looks normal enough, but normalcy is dead, for here is also the aftermath of the partying taking place on the video screens looming overhead. Naked sculptures, uncannily realistic corpses of Walt Paul and WS, bear signs of unmentionable violence. One has a porcelain figurine of a Disney character stuffed in her mouth. There is evidence of Abu Ghraib-style abuse. You imagine the walls echoing with shrieks and screams. Our icons have been ravaged and left to rot.

The hall fills with moaning. The longer you spend there, the louder it gets. As time passes, the videos grow more excessive, more orgiastic, more revolting, and watching them makes you feel worse. You take a break, leave the Armory and walk around the block, where you find yourself confronted by glutted storefronts: Madison Avenue’s orgy of excess. This makes you feel worse still. This is McCarthy’s point, and it is a fine one.

McCarthy makes you think. But he also wrestles with the body, his own body, and he’s been doing this for decades. Sticking things in his orifices, vomiting, smearing himself with ketchup and feces, taxing viewers’ tolerances and his own. There is a kind of clownish heroism in this very visible battle. He’s not just grappling with paint on canvas, engaging in an intellectual struggle. He’s putting himself in the middle of it. He’s the one gobbling up the grotesque. He’s leading the pants-less conga line; he’s jumping up and down just as enthusiastically as the much-younger dwarves and WS characters.

How much can be tolerated? What are the limits? The answers can be approached only if we put ourselves at risk. And here is where McCarthy stands apart from so many in the performance-art world: He doesn’t set himself above us. There is no do-you-get-it? challenge here. In making the experience of his art so visceral, so gutter-level and cannily extreme, he takes us with him on this physical journey into the heart of horror. We may feel soiled by it, or disgusted, or moved. But whatever we feel, it’s likely to be strong. McCarthy saves us from the morally vacant stance of cool appraisal.

Lightening up

In the Guggenheim rotunda, Turrell’s “Aten Reign” is an effect more than a thing: a cycle of colors filling the space overhead, brought about with layered scrims and LED fixtures.

I walked in during the white section of the cycle and thought, is that it? The jewelry being hawked outside on Fifth Avenue had more visual excitement. But then there was a subtle darkening, like lights going down before a concert, and concentric oval rings of lavender and deep violet appeared. The colors continued to change, all in the richness of dyed silks: shades of magenta, yellows, greens; the blues of every sky you’ve ever seen. The colors hover in space, suspended like Rothko’s rectangles.

Upstairs, smaller galleries of Turrell creations offer more subtleties of light: a slash of brightness in a darkened room, a shadow appearing and disappearing in near-darkness.

These two big shows beg to be compared, though their differences are almost too obvious to list. Where McCarthy’s show is heavy and dark, Turrell’s is airy and transparent. The Armory is sensory overload; the Guggenheim is sensory soothing. It is weightless, nothingness. McCarthy’s show is crazy, comical, nasty and rough, Turrell’s is wondrous and serene. McCarthy gives us hell; with Turrell we peek at heaven.

Where would you rather end up? It’s not an easy question.

Both shows offer a hangout. You can spend hours in the Armory, wandering through the side galleries (more videos, more sex, more fun with food) and sitting on the floor to take in the main video narrative. Similarly, visitors settle into the Guggenheim rotunda for a good long time. They lie on the floor, looking up, or view the colors from inclined benches.

There’s a certain glamour to “Aten Reign,” with its elegant simplicity and magnificent hues. The light feels like sunset on the Riviera, or the grace of God. But the smaller galleries feel precious and overworked.

McCarthy’s show is funnier. There’s a witty nihilism to his dwarfish house-trashing, with the celebrants in children’s party hats as they march around like rebellious toddlers, trousers at their ankles. These big, hairy, bare-bottomed men clutch balloon animals between their legs. When the camera zooms in, between the wigs and false noses and flopping organs, you don’t always know what end you’re looking at.

There is no confusion in Turrell’s world. He has teased out the bit of reality that interests him, picked it up with tweezers and put it under a microscope. He has studied it and manipulated it to an infinite degree. He takes us deeply into one thing — how light can alter perception — and there is something deeply moving about that, in the way that the quest for perfect understanding is always a story of discipline and struggle.

But McCarthy’s show is warmer, and contains emotional truths. In the exhausted people-pileups and relentless energy of his videos, there is a raw, unvarnished drive for physical sensation and connection. Watching that drive, being dragged inside it, viewing it from all angles so that the visuals were no longer simply working on my imagination but were getting under my skin — this is what kept me inside the Armory for many hours on a fine summer’s day that felt much more complicated when I left.

WS

is on view through Aug. 4. at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave. Admission is restricted to audiences over 17. www.armoryonpark.org.

James Turrell

is on view through Sept. 25 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave. www.guggenheim.org.

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