Paul And Damon McCarthy: 'Rebel Dabble Babble' Leaves Me Cold

Last night I went to see Paul and Damon McCarthy's opening, "Rebel Dabble Babble" at Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea.

Their spring program has been devoted to the father-son art duo, giving the McCarthys full run of their giant exhibition space (as well as an expansive show at the Armory uptown). The press release states, "McCarthy unleashes debauchery and desire with extreme technical daring, charting a territory where our fundamental impulses collide with our most cherished myths and hypocritical societal norms."

paul mccarthy rebel
"Chateau Marmont, Bungalow Set, Inverted Hollywood Sign" (2011)

On view are a series of films exploring the complex relationship between Natalie Wood, James Dean, and Nicholas Ray, the director of "Rebel Without a Cause." Naturally, the actor and performance artist James Franco suggested the idea for the new film, "Rebel Dabble Babble," and the McCarthys yes, using it as a primer for how they dealt with filming their four-channel, seven-hour epic film on deranged Disney characters now on view at the Armory. In the talk, Paul said about Franco, "Every time he came in the room we were totally seduced by him." (The power of Hollywood is strong, even for artists.)

Paul said they considered casting Lindsay Lohan in the part of Natalie Wood, but then said "fuck it. We want to pull back to what we think is art, not what Hollywood thinks is art."

And yet, walking through the exhibition, I noticed how men and women were reacting to the erotic films differently. Maybe "erotic" isn't the right word here, though. They are beyond X-rated in this way that makes them more like campy instructional videos for pelvic exams. Nevertheless, I saw a guy absolutely transfixed at the sight of a giant hairless woman stroking her vagina. He even surreptitiously snapped a photo on his phone.

Then a woman stood in front of a giant screen, watching the hairless actress on all fours masturbate, opening herself up to the camera completely. The view we were seeing was from a higher angle, showing who was in power -- the camera, the Hollywood Male Gods, I suppose -- but the result felt like it was a dare for women to stay in the room, to show we could handle it. (We always "handle it," unfortunately.)

To be fair, Paul McCarthy is shown in compromising positions, nude or without pants, throughout the exhibition. But the power dynamics are different when we gaze at his form (the form of the venerated Male Artist) than when we look at an attractive, pliant young actress playing the tragic figure of Natalie Wood.

What was I getting out of this interaction, exactly? I moved on to a room with various framed photos of film stills revealing a nude actress with jizz on her face, a nude actress accepting a penis into her, a nude actress covered in yellow goo, laughing, a nude actress walking up stairs, and a clothed actress being slapped. Is this transgressive anymore, in an era when films like "The Human Centipede" and "Saw" are shown in theaters nationally, spawning numerous remakes? (If it's not transgressive, then what is it?)

In La La Land: Parody Paradise, Paul McCarthy writes, "I want my work to look almost ridiculous, to not fit in, to not be commercial, to subvert the very genre of Hollywood itself." In the talk, he reiterated this idea, saying "Rebel" is "a push against normality, which I think is fucked up."

As I walked through the cavernous space filled with giant films of a hysterical woman and two powerful, ridiculous men, I kept thinking of Ellen Willis's essay on punk in Out Of The Vinyl Deeps. She writes, "When you stripped the gentility from the relations between the sexes, what too often remained was male power in its most brutal form. And given the present political atmosphere, that potential was worrisome."

She wrote this in 1977, but the same holds true in 2013. Paul McCarthy knows the female body has been used and abused in Hollywood and high art, and attempts to address that in his films. I know this is all a wink, a joke, a takedown of Tinseltown, but at the end of the show I just felt sad. What was meant to subvert just ends up reproducing the power structures we're used to, at least from an audience perspective, which has been fed decades of images of thin white women being accepted, mistreated, or rejected by men.

"Paul McCarthy and Damon McCarthy: Rebel Dabble Babble" is up from June 20 - July 26 at Hauser & Wirth in Chelsea and "WS" is on view at the Armory's Wade Thompson Drill Hall from June 19 through August 4, 2013.

Paul McCarthy "WS"