Swept Away

On Still Being Smitten With Matthew Barney

The Cremaster cycle is unabashedly about big, unmanageable things. As with Melville's Moby Dick, Barney's tetrology is digressive; mystical about locations and objects; rife with Rabelaisian humor and overabundance; filled with historical, biblical, and mythical allusions; and takes place in micro- and macro-scales simultaneously.

But Barney's world is also quite insular. There's a preponderance of small, claustrophobic spaces. Spent, febrile, or hapless heroes go through absurd motions. Some tunnel or climb; others dance or simply sit. Cloistered, all seem focused on some single activity. Roland Barthes wrote about the "ceaseless action of secluding oneself"; Edmond de Goncourt about "subtle and elegant depravity." All this links Barney to the languorous realm imagined by J.K. Huysmans in Against Nature, with its sapped, isolated protagonist, and his visions of the female genitalia as a Venus flytrap.

As a form, the Cremaster cycle is an opportunistic genre that latches onto other genres. This connects Barney to another avant-garde artist-filmmaker who loved latching onto things, and who also reveled in tiny changes: Andy Warhol. Like Warhol's, Barney's actors are androgynous; his storytelling, unconventional; character development, virtually non-existent. Both artists make films that are at once boring and hallucinatory. Although many say Barney's videos are slick, they all look like they were made by a handful of dedicated, if slightly demented, people—Barney's Factory, if you will.

A virtuoso of materials: the Guggenheim installation, Goodyear Field (1996), at bottom
photo: Robin Holland
A virtuoso of materials: the Guggenheim installation, Goodyear Field (1996), at bottom

Details

Matthew Barney
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue
Through June 11

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Barney's is an art of exquisite parts—moments that solidify into lasting visions. Many, frozen in my memory, include Barney: dressed as a satyr tap-dancing his way through a floor into the sea; burrowing through a tunnel of Vaseline; naked, on a bridge in Budapest, about to plunge into the Danube; and bending to kiss Ursula Andress goodbye. I remember three fairies peering through a hole like figures from a Mantegna painting; pigeons lifting Barney's scrotum skyward (one of the most ecstatic and tragic moments in the cycle); adorable dancers forming elaborate patterns on blue Astroturf; and, in a sequence that has all the fear of the American night, Barney as Gary Gilmore (fitted with a teeny-tiny prosthetic penis) failing to crawl from one parked Ford Mustang to another—a turning point in this saga of turning points.

There is one serious problem with the show as far as I'm concerned: The catalog lists the first two articles on Barney as mine and Lane Relyea's, both published in April 1991. In fact, my Barney article came out in Arts magazine in May of that year. Relyea's wasn't published in Artforum until way later, in September, an entire 123 days after mine, not that anyone's deranged enough to count.

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