Friday, June 21, 2013

The Art Set: I’m Shocked! (NOT)

Adults only in the old days (©Bettmann/CORBIS)
The Art Set: I’m Shocked! (NOT)
Charlie Scheips

One of my favorite lines in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 masterpiece, “Casablanca,” is delivered by Claude Rains as Captain Renault who — as the croupier hands him a thick wad of bills — slyly remarks to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick: “I'm shocked ... shocked! ... to find that gambling is going on in here!”

Art has been shocking people for a very long time. In 1863 Edouard Manet’s Olympia “shocked” bourgeois Paris for transforming Titian’s Venus of Urbino into a contemporary courtesan. In 1913 (exactly 100 years ago) Marcel Duchamp’s cubistic Nude Descending the Staircase “shocked” visitors in New York, including former President Teddy Roosevelt, when it was exhibited at New York’s 69th Regiment Armory downtown. But let's speed forward to more contemporary times.
Edouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863.
Titian’s Venus of Urbino.
About Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, Teddy Roosevelt wrote: "There is in my bathroom a really good Navajo rug which, on any proper interpretation of the Cubist theory, is a far more satisfactory and decorative picture ..."
In 1966, Edward Kienholz’s Back Seat Dodge ’38 — an assemblage featuring a male and female mannequin having sex in the car’s back seat — almost caused the LA County Board of Supervisors to withhold financing for the Los Angeles County Museum in which it was exhibited (they are now the work’s proud owners). In 1971, we had Chris Burden getting shot as a work of art. In 1978, Andy Warhol created a series of works he called “Oxidation” paintings that were created by human urine released onto copper pigmented treated canvases — nicknaming them his “Piss Paintings.”
Edward Kienholz’s Back Seat Dodge ’38, 1966.
Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971.
Andy Warhol, Oxidation Painting, 1978.
Then, of course in the next decade we had Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ of 1987 that got the lightly-missed Senator Jesse Helms’s knickers in a twist. This was soon followed in 1989 by the traveling exhibition survey of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work which included some of his homo-erotic and sado-masochistic images that set off a full-fledged culture war in the United States over government funding of the arts that goes on in varying ways still today. Lastly — although, as I said before, I could go on and on — we can’t forget Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary of 1996 (composed partially of cow dung and collaged images of body parts) that caused then Mayor Rudy Giuliani to go apoplectic when it was featured in the legendary “Sensation” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999.
Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, 1987. From Robert Mapplethorpe's 1989 traveling exhibition.
Chris Ofili’s Holy Virgin Mary, 1996.
I couldn’t help thinking back to Claude Rains insincere “shock” again this week after the New York Post featured two articles on Wednesday reacting to well-known Los Angeles-based artist Paul McCarthy’s massive new multi-media installation that opened the evening before at the Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street.

McCarthy’s mammoth work is blatantly sexual and graphically violent. No one under 17 can be admitted. It is entitled “WS” which is short for “White Snow,” a play on the work’s central subject which is pretty much a twisted (and sometimes very humorous) manic expository rift on an alternate universe McCarthy has imagined using the 1937 Walt Disney animated classic “Snow White” as a springboard to a much darker world and story line.

Paul McCarthy WS program front cover.
G-rated Walt Disney.
The 67-year-old artist, who stars himself in many of the films featured in “WS,” is a character named “Walt Paul” with the artist made-up with a large prosthetic nose as well as a moustache similar to the one sported by the legendary animator.

Entering into the main Exhibition Hall of the Armory, at the east/west front and back of the enormous space are two massive scrims, stretching almost the entire width of the north/south axis of space and mounted way above eye-level three-quarters up between the ceiling and floor. The scrims feature projected multi-frame film clips accompanied by almost, but not quite, ear piercing amplified sound tracks that emanate from speakers placed throughout the Hall.

The center of the Hall is dominated by two separate life-size film sets of a “defiled” typical suburban American ranch house in which an orgiastic bacchanal of some kind has gone terribly wrong. Platforms surround the house so that visitors may walk around the building’s perimeter and, every few steps, peer into windows, open doors and cut out camera “peek holes” that were sawed out while McCarthy’s various films were being made. Without giving any of it away, let me just say you will definitely feel you are a witness to a very gruesome crime scene.

Behind this installation, taking up the other half of the Exhibition Hall is a massive towering surrealistic artificial forest that was also created as a setting for the various films. There are individual films featured throughout a dozen or so of the other spaces spread about the Armory building.

Pathways have been cut through this “forest” so that visitors can also wander about and amidst McCarthy’s funky “Eden” — or really East of Eden. Several other smaller connected spaces (not usually seen by the various art and design fairs that regularly use the Armory as a venue) line the southern end of the Exhibition Hall and remind me of dingy sex clubs of New York during the 1970s — especially once you start watching the individual films projected in each of these rooms.
Paul McCarthy at The Armory.
I really don’t want to spoil the show but Death, Masturbation, Substance Abuse, Fornication, Pornography are some of the big themes you will encounter. You get the idea.

After you’ve made the rounds on the ground floor, you can also climb the steps to the Armory’s balcony and view the whole spectacle below from a bird’s eye view. While walking on the main floor in the dimly lit Wade Thompson Drill Hall, you are aware you are walking on carpeting, but it is only from the balcony that one realizes that McCarthy has used huge strips of mismatched patterned carpet runners such as those used in aisles and lobbies of movie theaters.
A scene from Paul McCarthy's WS.
I have to say, that after about an hour in this completely over the top and physically overwhelming installation, I was ready to get out and get a drink! But, they have even provided a Food and Drink service in one of the grand reception rooms to the right of the Armory’s staircase.

Afterwards, landscape historian Bryan Fuermann and I walked around the corner on our way to dinner, we ran into photographer and artist Sandra Hamburg and art advisor Maureen Mahony on their way to take in the McCarthy show.
Bryan Fuermann with Sandra Hamburg and Maureen Mahony, who were on their way to the Paul McCarthy Show at The Armory.
For the last couple decades there has been an developing blurring of the boundaries between conventional film and contemporary artists’ uses of the medium. One of my problems with multi-media installations such as McCarthy’s “WS” is that you have to invest a significant amount of time to see what its all about.

DE LAMA LÂMINA: Orixá de Ferro (2005) by Matthew Barney. (Courtesy the artist and the Morgan Library)
I am one of those people who will walk out of a movie in five minutes if I don’t like it. My initial take on the McCarthy work was similar to the way I used to feel about Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle of films made between 1994 and 2002. Together they ran I think over seven hours. I certainly never had the patience to watch them for more than several minutes.

That said, the day after attending the McCarthy Armory extravaganza I dropped by the Morgan Library and took in their current Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney that I thoroughly enjoyed. Although I brought my time to the viewing of the Morgan show while film and video generally require the viewer to surrender to the artist’s time.

The next morning, when I arose to see the Post’s coverage of McCarthy’s installation I had more of a sense of admiration for it. In fact, I’ve continued to chuckle about it from time to time ever since. I’ll definitely go back.

Finally, returning to the concept of shock. The Post (which I receive daily at my door) is hardly my idea of a guardian of our collective public morality — and for that matter isn't it really a "civilized society" most of us want and not a world where people who are elected to govern us know how we should live our lives better than we do?
The Post's "Opinion."
Several pages later in the Post they published an opinion piece by Seth Lipsky (founder of the now defunct New York Sun) attempting to re-light the flame of outrage and call for censorship based on the fact that the Armory (though not the Paul McCarthy show per se) has received millions of dollars of support from the city and state. The exhibition boldly states almost everywhere the eye can see that the “exhibition contains explicit and mature content.” Lipsky argues that because no one under 17 years of age is allowed in that this is discrimination of some kind — and a burden to the taxpayer? Does everything we experience in life have to be suitable for children? I think not.
Frankly, I would love it if more places in New York prohibited people under 17 from certain places. Even though it is illegal for anyone under 21 to sit at a bar in a restaurant in the State of New York, this seems to be a law that is now lightly (if ever) enforced around town — even at our swankiest restaurants! I have had literally hundreds of moments of pleasure sipping a martini suddenly spoiled when, by chance, I find myself sharing the bar with a parent having the bartender or server refilling a “sippy cup” of fruit juice for “little Emily” or “darling Jr.” This all came about after Mayor Bloomberg banned smoking.

Mr. Lipsky’s argument seems pretty lame to me as you can simply elect not to pay the $15 admission fee and not see the McCarthy show. I am one of the multi-millions of smoking New York taxpayers who cannot have a totally legal cigarette in any park in New York City. Why is that fair? And any teenager today can download just as many graphic pornographic images and videos on their iPhones and iPads such as are seen in the McCarthy exhibition.

But it is thankfully no surprise to me that art continues to shock!

Thank heavens!
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