Matthew Barney backlash is in full force—at least in the art world where mood swings and short attention spans are the rule. In the wider world, there have been glowing reviews of Drawing Restraint 9, Barney’s latest mega-million dollar two-and-a-half-hour film set on a Japanese whaling ship and starring Barney and his love interest Björk, who at the film’s cannibalistic climax turn one other into sashimi. Art-world word of mouth has not been kind: Descriptions have included “God awful,” “tedious,” “self-indulgent,” “misguided,” and “incomprehensible.”
Heading through a phalanx of paparazzi into a screening of the movie, I feared that I too—a big, some would say addled, Barney fan—would be swept up by the bad buzz. Settling into my seat, anticipating the sight of an artist running on fumes, I prepared for my own private Barney hate-fest.
It never arrived. Which means I now have to try to explain not only why Drawing Restraint 9 is better than many in the art world think, but why it’s probably the best thing Barney has ever done. First, what had been an art of exquisite parts with moments of solidity has in Drawing Restraint 9 morphed into a ravishing, wide-ranging, symphonic vision. This is Barney’s Moby Dick by way of Beckett: a story that takes place nowhere but that touches on everything. Barney is still clinical, hermetic, grandiose, controlling, melo-dramatic, and aberrant; his work can be claustrophobic, drugged, operatic, and tyrannical. But now he’s taking these qualities to new levels: This is the clinical-sublime, the hermetic-sublime, the grandiose-sublime.
Barney is a myth-machine, a one-man theater of multiple personalities. Drawing Restraint 9 is like a slow-motion cyclone, an abstract labyrinth with a biological-mythological-historical structure. Scenes involve the Japanese tea ceremony, whaling, sex, and the making of sculpture. We learn about ambergris—a composite of undigested squid beaks and shrimp casings regurgitated by whales that floats on the ocean’s surface, where it is cured by the motion of the waves and the light of the sun, eventually to be harvested for use in perfume. We see the life cycle of a sculpture, Barney’s familiar bisected ovular logo as it’s made by Japanese workers out of liquid petroleum jelly pumped from a truck into a mold on the deck of a whaling ship. One of the film’s several storylines is the morphogenesis of this form: As the ship sails south to Antarctica the shape solidifies in the cooler air before being allowed to collapse at the film’s end when Barney and Björk, transformed into whales, swim away. Just as the movie Titanic is, in many ways, the story of a form going from pure horizontality to total verticality, Drawing Restraint 9 is the tale of libidinous forces being allowed to commingle and then metamorphosize. It’s Ovid, Aesop, the Kama Sutra, and a disaster movie by way of Bergman, Kurosawa, James Cameron, and the horror film directors Clive Barker and Sam Raimi. At Gladstone, Barney has upped the ante in several astounding new sculptures—works that are more absorbing and sculptural than previous efforts, less like props. The cool, dim light in the space, the lavender color in some of the material set against the stark white, and the configuration of the pieces create a skein of narrative over the narrative of the film. The gnarly, delectable drawings, framed in self-lubricating plastic, are Barney meets Beuys, Bellmer, and Dalí.
Even his harshest critics must admit that Drawing Restraint 9, good or bad, isn’t that different from other Barney efforts. The glacial pacing is the same; so is the back-and-forth, this-then-that editing. This suggests that the backlash is partly in reaction to content outside Barney’s work, most likely his success, the money that goes into these films, and especially the repeated claims that he is the greatest artist of his generation. In truth, Barney has always been so wrapped up in and hyperfocused on process, narrative, imagination, and metaphysics that he was never so easily catagorized. Rather, Barney is what he’s always been: a mystic exploring his own inner cathedral—someone as surprised, I imagine, as anyone at what he finds. As artist Hadassa Goldvicht writes, “He dives so deep into his world that it becomes a new religion.” Barney’s ambition looms large, his vision is epic, but he’s still a very eccentric, almost outsider artist.
The art critic Peter Schjeldahl has previously written admiringly of Barney. He recently told me Barney is “monstrously self-absorbed” and that Drawing Restraint 9 is “boring” and “a scratch where there is no itch.” I think all artists are self-absorbed, monstrously or otherwise. Also, Barney is not really in his work at all. He’s a hologram of a person, a cipher who uses his body as a character in his art, the same way the logo, the whaling vessel, and locations are characters.
Robert Rauschenberg said that “narrative is the sex of art.” Barney makes this sex simultaneously lifeless, sadomasochistic, voluptuous, and barbaric. He overloads narrative so much that it becomes a new material unto itself. I love that Barney’s art takes a long time to look at, that you have to see it more than once, that he presents dramas without resolution, that he seems to fold space around him, turns film into an object and finds a way to get between Hollywood movies and underground films. I love that he risks mammoth failure in an age where many indulge in easy success, that he explores the chasm between East and West, that his art is truly melancholic, and that it radiates a spectacular otherness.
Artists who have the ability or the willingness to make their work strange to themselves have the potential of making great art. One can onlyimagine what Philip Guston must have thought of his late figurative paintings after he had spent decades essentially painting irradiated abstract fields.Lately in this department there is a batch of artists who are simply starting out strange, notably the squirrelly comedic Magritte-ian Jamie Isenstein, who has hidden in walls so that only her hand is showing within a picture frame, or sat inside an altered chair so that her bare arms are the arms of the furniture. Now there’s Xavier Cha, an equally subtle but more aggressive and high-strung UCLA grad who has carved her name into hedges and dressed as a shrimp in front of an L.A. sushi bar and a life-size fingernail in front of a nail salon, turning herself into human advertising.
In her dilly of a New York debut at Taxter & Spengemann (an outfit that specializes in artists with oddball sensibilities), Cha, who like Isenstein and many of these artists would have really spiced up the current Whitney Biennial, is performing three pieces, one each week. The first saw Cha wedged inside a huge cornucopia brimming with produce, with only her feet showing. A hunk in a gold toga massaged her toes at the opening. Later in the week I watched the marvelously strange Rachel Mason, who once made a sculpture of herself kissing George Bush, sing love songs to Cha inside the cornucopia. Another evening two Korean belly dancers writhed around it.
Strange or otherwise, Cha effectively combines performance, sculpture, costume design, installation, cruising the Web for weirdos, happenings, and humor to make art that is smart, smart-alecky, and even badass.