Speaking to a select crowd before the opening of his exhibition Rebel Dabble Babble at Hauser & Wirth, controversial artist Paul McCarthy explained, “In the position of being humiliated, you learn something. We all exist in humiliation.”
Looking at McCarthy’s and his son, Damon McCarthy’s demented and twisted take on the film Rebel Without A Cause, humiliation, as well as shame, debasement and abjection, run rampant as McCarthy delves into the sordid sexualities of actors James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and Rebel Without A Cause director Nicholas Ray. Playing on the rumors of Ray’s affairs with the stars in the iconic 50’s juvenile delinquent classic, McCarthy corrupts Natalie Wood, a mid-20th century version of White Snow, his demented version of Snow White, in a swirling, surreal and screaming installation.
With professional annoyance James Franco in the role of James Dean, the wonderfully named Elyse Poppers as Natalie Wood and McCarthy himself as the fake-nosed Nicholas Ray, the McCarthys construct an installation that forces the audience to participate and identify with his debased, humiliated and shamed characters through his films and the architecture of his models of Ray’s infamous Bungalow 2 at the Chateau Marmont and the living room of Jim Stark, James Dean’s character in Rebel Without A Cause.
Taking McCarthy’s employment of shame and other negative affects in relation to the turn in queer theory from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Kathryn Bond Stockton, McCarthy’s shamed audience forms a type of, however short-lived, community of viewers who enact, as McCarthy described at Hauser & Wirth, “a resistance to normality.”
Natalie Wood In Debasement
In Kathryn Bond Stockton’s Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where ‘Black’ Meets ‘Queer’, a study on the crossings between black and queer identities, she discusses the definition of debasement as “to lower in quality, character or value.” (7). While none of the characters in Rebel Dabble Babble, like most of McCarthy’s art, come out without being debased, the chaotic descent of Natalie Wood is perhaps the most shocking and mesmerizing example of McCarthy’s interest in debasement and abjection.
Through the films in Rebel Dabble Babble, Hollywood icon Natalie Wood becomes an increasingly depraved, sexualized figure rather than the virginal child actress that she was before Rebel Without A Cause. Referencing rumors of her affair with Nicholas Ray, as well as her champagne bathtub incident (Who knew bubbles burn?) with Dennis Hopper and James Dean, Wood becomes both the desired woman, as the lusting and disgusting Ray lunges after her, and the sexual aggressor, particularly in her masturbating film “Adult Entertainment” in the back of the gallery.
Playing in the middle of two other films, Wood kneels with her bottom to the camera as she masturbates unapologetically close into the lens. Witnessing the highly esteemed starlette as never seen before, the film draws on the same definition of debasement in Stockton’s book. As Stockton observes, “More often than not, debasements attach to a person’s body, highlighting attributes of some kind of surface or calling attention to a dirty bottom depth…Debasement, that is, takes (its) place: in a body, in a neighborhood or in a human brain” (24). Close enough to be an anatomy lesson, Wood’s debasement truly calls attention to a ‘dirty bottom.’
Similarly, abjection also features heavily in Rebel Dabble Babble, particularly in the Rebel Dabble Babble version of the champagne bathtub incident. Referencing the interminable Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Stockton states, “abjection is for her a state of being thrown away–cast out or aside” (12). In Kristeva’s essay, she points to the body’s “abject others” such as refuse and corpses. While there are no corpses in Rebel Dabble Babble like McCarthy’s show WS at the Park Avenue Armory, the utterly disturbing and yet entrancing scene of McCarthy as Nicholas Ray pouring an unidentifiable yellow mucus-like substance on Wood certainly turns the stomach.
As Wood writhes in both apparent enjoyment and horror, Ray, while naked, squirts this utterly disturbing cross between cake batter and jizz all over her. Stockton explains, Kristeva “makes abjection a form of challenge and frightening seduction” (12). Watching Wood in the bathtub is both shocking and confrontational, as well as oddly seducing.
Houses of Affect
Like the McCarthys’ play between challenging and seducing the audience with Natalie Wood covered in muck in a bathtub, the model Bungalow 2 further reveals the off-putting debased sexuality of Wood, as well as the implication of the audience through shame. Slightly lecherously, the viewers peek into various cut-out holes and windows in the bungalow, noticing the multitude of stains, strewn clothing including James Dean’s iconic red jacket from Rebel Without A Cause and a film projected in the living room. By implicating the audience as voyeurs, McCarthy places the audience in an active role in the exhibition, leading to their ultimate identification in shame on the second floor of Bungalow 2.
After waiting in a long line, the viewer walks up a narrow and tackily pink carpeted staircase into the second floor of Ray’s Bungalow. Only four people are allowed at a time to this small upstairs room, which hosts four chairs and four headphones. Positioned in front of a bed, the film “Seduction, Theme Song” is projected monumentally above the bed, featuring Wood rolling around, moaning for “Nick” and licking the bedpost. Despite Wood’s calls for Nick, her seemingly unwavering eye contact implicates the viewer, transferring Wood’s debasement into shame in the viewer. The film creates a palpable tension in the room as the viewers don’t know whether to look away, or actually like it. As Stockton reveals, “Like disgust, Shame operates only after interest or enjoyment has been activated, and inhibits one or the other or both” (15).
This push and pull of shame as desire creates a type of reaching out. Stockton explains, “These dynamics make shame both a personal, ‘individualiting’ experience and an odd form of reaching out, of ‘uncontrollable relationality’—the place where the question of identity arises” (15). Sitting in the upstairs of the model Bungalow 2, the select group of viewers create a type of relationality in their own shame for Wood, their reaction to Wood’s deflected come-ons and their shame throughout the entire deranged exhibition.
More than Kathryn Bond Stockton, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick perhaps best explains the creation of an identity or community through shame in her essay on shame and performativity in Henry James in Touching, Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. In Touching, Feeling, she states both, “shame attaches to and sharpens the sense of what one is” and “shame both derives from and aims toward sociability” (37). Social as well as an individual, shame, employed by the McCarthys’, not only involves one viewer’s identity but the identities of all the viewers in the space at once, creating a community of viewers who have all been dragged into the humiliation, shame, debasement and abjection of the McCarthys’ wonderfully dirty world.
Resistance To the Conditions of Culture
Allowing the viewers to become willing (and possibly unwilling) participants in his bacchanal of humiliation and shame, McCarthy constructs a group of viewers who begin to relate to one another through their collective shame, assuming that most of the viewers stick with the entire installation and don’t run out offended. Walking through Rebel Dabble Babble, it is almost impossible not to glance at the other viewers, trying to see if your mortified reaction is the same as theirs. This created-community of art viewers, in combination with McCarthy’s predilection for crossing the boundaries of good taste, respectability and accepted artistic subjects, allows McCarthy to create an all-encompassing work that questions and for a period of time, threatens normality, patriarchy and the big “C” word: culture.
In his discussion with curator Tom Eccles at Hauser & Wirth, McCarthy revealed that in his art he wants to “make something to a scale that changes things and pushes against normality, which I think is fucked up.” Through employing debasement, abjection, humiliation and shame, both in the exhibition and projecting it on to the viewer, McCarthy breaks through the emotional and affectual barriers not only between art and the viewer but between the viewer and other viewers surrounding them.