Before we talk about Paul McCarthy's demented versions of Snow White figurines now at the Henry Art Gallery, let's go back to the erection of the hobbity bishop at fake-Ariel's wedding to the prince in the 1989 hit Disney movie The Little Mermaid. You had to pause or slow down the movie to see the undeniable thing sprout for a moment, forming a tiny little anti-monument that would become visible only in the era of home entertainment that followed.
At least one lawsuit was filed against Disney for the indiscretion, but some of us found it amusing and the only enduring thing of any value in the movie. Rather than subliminally bullying us about not being prettier, chipperier, and younger, this was a moment when The Little Mermaid was subliminally tipping us off that we had a mole inside that bully world of established norms, somebody who might take our side and even pervert the whole thing someday.
It is my understanding that McCarthy, the LA artist who until about 15 years ago was not a megastar of the art world, thinks of himself a little like that inside man, the one who will venture in after dark and rummage around the friendly-faced fascism of postwar American iconography. He'd muck things up so that we'd never see Snow White's red hair bow and stiff high collar the same way again.
Take that, norms.
And those of us who grew up steeped in the emotional and sexual repression of American culture—always full of fears that we only later realized were always of the wrong things, like being kidnapped at a Kmart or getting AIDS from a spoon—needed to hope that such acts of perversion would be redemptive. Someday our McCarthys would come.
They did come. They just didn't interrupt very much, and their surface victories ended up creating whole new problems.
McCarthy's sculptures are huge, gorgeously made monuments in wood. His work is "a program of resistance," he says, and the sculptures are the unmissable middle fingers pointed at the whole unchecked patriarchal capitalist enterprise. But McCarthy has enough money today that he bought a thousand acres in California to build his own B-movie studio, to become his own anti-Disney. As we're seeing in presidential election politics, "the whole thing" worth resisting turned out to be partly one thing and partly another. While social norms have moved visibly left in the last two decades, economic ones have silently sped right, and what's shocking now—especially if you're a Bernie Sanders voter—is the luxury and excess of these astronomically expensive sculptures, not the subversive content on their surfaces.
Though I'm mistrustful of Paul McCarthy: White Snow, Wood Sculptures at the Henry, I see that it's also an epic display that can't help but make an impression. I'm not telling you not to go. White Snow is a grouping of finely crafted black-walnut wood sculptures between 4 and 15 feet tall, arranged in a large open gallery at the bottom level of the museum like a knotty root system exposed to the air.
Each blown-up tchotchke distorts and perverts characters that originated in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale that Disney sanitized into its first full-length animated feature film, 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
McCarthy made his pieces by creating 3-D digital models, which he sent to the Walla Walla Foundry in Southeastern Washington. There, the workers, who one hopes whistled while they worked, operated a CNC router that cut the puzzle pieces of each sculpture out of the black walnut. Those were then glued together and hand sanded.
These surfaces are elaborately engineered marquetry. The wood is magnificent, and utterly subdued to the will of the artist. If there is a pornography on display, it's less the PG-nography of swollen cartoon genitalia and more the fetishized spectacle of obsessive craftsmanship, of how much time, money, and domination it can take to produce refined things. Fine furniture, really. Kitsch plays a role. One of the sculptures is a seated, snow white Snow White with her lips suggestively wrapped around the torso of a dwarf so that she looks to be fellating his entire person. But the money shot is on the back side, where there's nothing sexual going on. It's the ornate pattern of the wood pieces so flawlessly, immaculately cut and joined to form Snow White's collar. That's the best custom hardwood floor you've ever seen. Who dusts these rococo monsters, anyway?
These sculptures were first displayed three years ago in New York, when McCarthy swept the city in a victory tour where he already looked like a retired runner weighed down by his old medals. He had six (six!) displays of his work in the city that year, 2013. The wood works were included, along with similar bronzes, drawings, and also a massive installation at the Park Avenue Armory that incorporated performance, video, and a nearly full-scale model of his childhood home.
Maggie Nelson, in her book The Art of Cruelty, makes a compelling case for the liberatory power of McCarthy's performance videos, especially one in which he enacts extreme sexual abuse and rape within a nuclear family using doll parts and edibles like ketchup and mayonnaise. Their psychosexual anarchy is certainly anathema to McCarthy's own repressed upbringing in Salt Lake City. Those messy scenes are liberating because they're painful, and they're painful because their un-lifelike conditions defy the potential for catharsis. They allow pain its ongoing life, to reverberate and continue rather than to resolve in any way.
I sense that's what McCarthy is going for with his relentless replications of body parts in the White Snow wood sculptures. Heads multiply on top of themselves. Snow White melts into the substrate of tangled parts, or her face or arms are subsumed by merging with the Prince's head or torso. When her face is seen, it's usually head thrown back, mouth open in a howl that also forms the insensate-edged, no-lipped void of a sex doll's mouth.
Every once in a while as I looked, my mistrust dropped, and I felt real, familiar, female pain emanating off of those debased tangles, recognizing me. I longed for those moments, not to be distracted by so much belabored, white-cube transgressing.
I went back and read a translation of the original Brothers Grimm story. There's more pain and absurdity there. For instance, the Prince doesn't wake Snow White with a kiss. His minions stumble over a tree stump when they're carrying off her coffin, and their stumbling dislodges the poison apple from her throat! (Has there ever been a better comedic bit about chivalry?) Then the jealous queen feels compelled to attend Snow White's wedding, and when she gets there, red-hot iron shoes are waiting for her. She has to put them on, and dance to death, "her tongue flicking in and out / like a gas jet," as Anne Sexton wrote. "Meanwhile Snow White held court, / rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut / and sometimes referring to her mirror / as women do."
You look at this work and you can't really tell whether McCarthy is just another limousine feminist, whether this Prince is here as your partner or if you're just getting dropped on the ground and, by dumb luck, spitting out the poison apple.