paul mccarthy and nicholas ray: myth and absurdity

Sorry it’s been so long since my last post.  I started this essay a while ago, but a brief existential crisis led me to fall off the writing wagon.  So, unfortunately, this won’t be as timely as I initially intended.  But I think it’s always relevant to consider connections between various art-forms…in this case we’ll be looking at some pretty specific parallels between contemporary art and 20th century popular myth and cinema.

Paul McCarthy is a contemporary artist whose work earnestly hopes to repulse the consumer.  Chris Burden (whose art performances include crawling over a parking lot covered in broken glass and getting shot in the arm with a .22-caliber rifle) has said of McCarthy that his art is “…a little bit like eating meat.  I mean, I love meat.  But I’m not sure I want to go to the slaughter yard.  And that’s where Paul takes you.”  Words like “shocking” and “challenging” are often used to describe his installations and performance videos, and his recent installation at the Hauser & Wirth 18th Street gallery was no exception.

My friend Tori is a Gallery Assistant at H&W, so I was able to get a private tour of this exhibit, called “Rebel Dabble Babble.”  The installation was built by Paul and his son Damon McCarthy (and as I’ll explain later, this father-son collaboration can be understood as part of a greater theme of paternity).  Inside the gallery space, father and son recreated Jim Stark’s living room from the 1955 Nicholas Ray film Rebel Without a Cause, as well as the infamous bungalow which housed Ray and his actors while shooting.  They then enlisted the acting talent of James Franco and (porn star) James Deen to play Jim Stark (and James Dean); Elyse Poppers as both the character Judy and the actress who played her, Natalie Wood; and Jay Yi as both Plato and the actor who played him, Sal Mineo.  And Paul McCarthy, of course, as Nicholas Ray.  The team then shot many hours of what McCarthy refers to as “performance videos,” not recreating, but completely re-imagining scenes from the film and the myth of its shooting.

As we walked through the sets and otherwise barren gallery space, these videos were projected all over the concrete walls and inside the bungalow.  One projection shows “Natalie Wood” laying at the bottom of a bathtub while “NIcholas Ray” squirts turkey gravy all over her, but only after letting it run over his testicles.  Another shows two of the actors repeatedly slapping each other across the face and screaming, until they draw blood.  One room, which Tori informed me almost always shows some sort of hard-core pornography, is apparently on one of those rare moments of respite.  Another room shows “Natalie Wood” climbing all over a bed in her underwear, apparently preparing to masturbate.  “Just wait,” Tori enthused, though I could tell she was trying to gauge my response to see if I’d had enough yet.

Walking through the exhibit was like entering a mad house where there are no people, only noise and images.  Sure, it is both “shocking” and “challenging” and repulsive, just as McCarthy intended it.  But it is also experienced from a distance.  If Rebel Without a Cause and the circumstances of its shooting contained elements of sexuality, violence, and incest, then this installation serves to eradicate any comprehension of them by making these elements so extreme that we become numb to them.

Paul McCarthy’s previous installations and videos also had a strong foundation in myth.  In an article in the New York Times by Randy Kennedy about McCarthy’s “White Snow” exhibition (a re-imagining of Snow White), it is explained that McCarthy “doesn’t have any inherent interest in fairy tales or childhood stories but that, like westerns, they provide him with simple, archetypal, often moralizing stories — of family, society, good and evil.  In some ways, Walt Disney seems to be the figure he has been practicing to eviscerate his whole life.”  I was curious about the mythical aspects behind the “Rebel Dabble Babble” exhibit, so I did a little research about Nicholas Ray, the enigmatic figure that McCarthy chose to personally emulate.  The source I used was Patrick McGilligan’s book, Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director.  I highly recommend this text for anyone interested in learning more about Ray and the artistic climate that shaped his oeuvre.

Natalie Wood and James Dean taking direction from Nicholas Ray on the set of Rebel

There is a lot of popular folklore about Ray and his Rebel Without a Cause actors, both during and after shooting.  Many believe the film to be cursed, because all of the principal actors all died young and violently:

  • Sal Mineo was stabbed to death in the alley behind his apartment in West Hollywood.
  • James Dean died in a head-on collision, while going 85 mph in his brand new Porsche 550 Spyder.
  • Natalie Wood drowned, mysteriously, while on a trip to Santa Catalina Island.  Her body was found the next day covered in bruises, a cut on her cheek, and traces of alcohol and painkillers in her body.

This sort of meaningless violence is all but foretold in the plot of the film itself, which ends with young and innocent Plato, Sal Mineo’s character, shot down by gun-happy cops.  Violence, death, destruction, and chaos are clearly concepts which comprise an important part of Ray’s vision “d’auteur,” so to speak.  The death at the chickie run (a game of chicken played in stolen cars) and a scene involving a knife fight both posit that such acts of violence, having no rational source of provocation, are the result of boredom and an inherent sense of existential meaninglessness.  Rebel Without a Cause dramatizes this philosophical issue in the first scene in the planetarium.  While on a school trip, Jim, Plato, and Judy–along with the rest of their classmates–watch a demonstration of the big bang, establishing earth’s infinitesimal size compared to the chaos of the universe.  The planetarium lecturer explains that the world will end “in a burst of gas and fire.”  In the scheme of space, humanity’s self-importance becomes a pretty absurd concept.  If violence and chaos are natural elements of the universe, why wouldn’t humans also fall victim to their power?

Long before the tragic deaths of Dean, Wood, and Mineo, Ray and his actors had an infamously intimate relationship.  Dean and Wood came from disinterested parents and unhappy homes, such that Ray easily took on the role of surrogate father.  His entire life, Ray was plagued by fantasies of the ideal “family.”  Ray’s biological father was a drunk, and died while Ray was still very young from alcohol poisoning.  Five years later, Ray would find his own surrogate father in Frank Lloyd Wright, while living in the architect’s commune for artists, called “The Fellowship” (which is, incidentally, where Ray was first exposed to “cosmopolitan” filmmakers such as Rene Clair, Carl Dreyer, and Sergei Eisenstein).

With his Rebel Without a Cause actors, Ray attempted to recapture the familial bliss of the commune during shooting.  Though instead of the artistic collaboration of The Fellowship, the collaboration that went on at the infamous Bungalow 2 of the Chateau Marmont–where the director and actors lived while shooting–was much more sexual in nature.  Most scandalously, Ray carried on a well-known affair with Wood, who was underage.  Though the relationship easily constituted statutory rape, little was actively done to stop it.  Another less well-known affair went on between Ray and Mineo.  Ray apparently recognized Mineo’s homosexuality before Mineo himself did.  According to Gore Vidal, Ray supposedly “initiated” the 16 year old boy to prepare him for his role as Plato.  (Plato was originally scripted to kiss Jim Stark, Dean’s character, but the erotic moment was cut by the censors who feverishly enforced Hollywood’s homophobic “Production Code.”)

Still, despite these sexual controversies, much of Ray’s relationship to his actors was fatherly in nature.  Before landing her role as Judy, Natalie Wood was in a serious car accident and had to be hospitalized.  Knowing her parents would be indifferent to her, the first person Wood called was Ray, hoping that her delinquency would convince him of her credentials for the part.  It worked.

Much of these elements are mirrored in the Rebel film itself.  The three main characters similarly come from cradles of dysfunction, searching for utopic surrogates.  Jim Stark and Judy take on the roles of “father” and mother”” to their “son” Plato, after finding their own families either defunct or nonexistent.

Plato fantasizes about a future with Jim, imagining days spent hunting and shooting.  It is clear that Plato saw a father-figure in Jim–the father he never had.  Sound familiar?

Over time, the Hollywood gossip surrounding the actors and director of Rebel Without a Cause morphed into an American myth–exactly the kind that Paul McCarthy gravitates towards.  A surrogate paternal figure, incest, and tragedy make up a perfect springboard to examine ideas of family, paternity, society and morality.  The way that Ray incorporated these same themes into his film led Rebel Without a Cause to be included in the pantheon of great American cinema, almost immediately.  Only two years after Rebel was distributed, Jean-Luc Godard is famously quoted as saying “the cinema is Nicholas Ray.”

By choosing such a mythical artistic figure and his equally-mythic work and then introducing elements of the absurd (hard-core pornography, violence, etc), McCarthy was able to create a uniquely…well, challenging installation.  In theory, a person walking through this exhibit should continually feel the urge to connect to either of the basic “plots”–of the film or its production–or even to the common Hollywood tropes they represent.  Yet, at every turn this urge is aggressively thwarted by the absurd, resulting in an uncomfortable distancing effect.

McCarthy’s “Rebel Dabble Babble” de-familiarized and destabilized pop culture, and thus forced consumers of this culture to take a step back an re-evaluate what it is we are incorporating into our collective unconscious.

Upside-down Hollywood sign that greeted visitors to the exhibit. McCarthy’s challenge to this monolith reverberated throughout the gallery.

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One response to “paul mccarthy and nicholas ray: myth and absurdity

  1. Pingback: The American Friend/Der amerikanische Freund (1977) | timneath·

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