Named for the muscle that turns your nutsack into a walnut when it gets cold, The Cremaster Cycle swings the biggest dick in contemporary art. Produced from 1994 through 2002, and last screened in conjunction with a hilariously overwrought retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2003, Matthew Barney’s humongous riff on struggle, reproduction, conceptual drag, and several dozen strands of narrative gobbledygook is undeniably something to be reckoned with—if only as a relic of the boom years in contemporary art.
What kind of something it actually is depends on whom you ask. In a 1999 New York Times profile declaring Barney the most important American artist of his generation, Michael Kimmelman posited that the “fundamental goal” of Cremaster is to “maintain, through one phantasmagoric image after another, a state of creative redolence.” To be sure, the elaborate tableaux of Cremaster ooze a pungent eau d’art. Taken as a whole, the five-film cycle—shot out of chronological order, but intended to be watched sequentially—functions as a kind of nebulous postmodern gesamtkunstwerk, consolidating a century’s worth of avant-garde tropes, motifs, strategies, and postures.
The Cremaster Cycle is unrivaled as spectacular pastiche. In what now looks like the freakiest Lady Gaga video ever, Cremaster 1 (1995) fuses Busby Berkeley with Marcel Duchamp to propose an allegory of sexual differentiation onboard two Goodyear blimps subject to the bizarre geometric dictates of a football field in Idaho.
Cremaster 2 (1999), the most visually compelling entry, introduces heaps of quasi-narrative content (murderers, magic, Mormons) in service of a “gothic Western” indebted to David Lynch and Richard Prince. These increasingly elaborate narrative and symbolic structures come to an unbearably tedious climax in the three-hour-long Cremaster 3 (2002), which opens in the mists of B-movie Celtic prehistory before proceeding to a lugubrious rumination on the construction of the Chrysler building and Barney’s own art-world apotheosis—as staged on a Guggenheim spiral busy with heavy metalloids, cheetah-women, Comme Des Garçonism, and Adobe After-Effects.
Literalizing the cycle’s parasitic relation to art history, Cremaster 3 casts Richard Serra as a Vaseline-Flinging Architect; culminating the cycle’s cinematic ambitions, it premiered at the Ziegfeld. If Barney has been successful in bridging art to art house—the Cremasters played at Film Forum, and the current revival is at the IFC Center—he hasn’t quite convinced the cine-telligentsia. Aficionados of avant-garde cinema tend to call bullshit on Barney, partly because he’s a blatantly lousy editor.
For all their production design and performance bedazzlement, the Cremasters display the rhythmic excitement of congealed goo. Their montage develops through a ponderous ping-pong movement that mistakes flat-footed deliberateness for hypnosis. The voluptuous Hungarian operatics of Cremaster 5 (1997) lack genuine musicality. Not even Björk can give her baby-daddy rhythm, as witnesses their bloated whaling fantasia Drawing Restraint 9 (2005).
Formalist nitpicking notwithstanding, Barney is an ingenious sculptor, and Cremaster works best as an elaborate kind of staging, or moving-image curating, of his studio practice. (A claim made possible only when one ignores the pretentious notion, put forth by Barney and some of his defenders, that his films are sculpture. If that’s the case, then never mind: He’s a middling sculptor after all.) Unfathomably self-possessed objects are his forte: seething conglomerations of queer materials, amputated narratives, and hypothetical sexualities packing a neo-surrealist wallop.
There’s an exquisite cut to be made from the nearly-seven-hour yawn time of the complete cycle. Alas, it’s not in the interest of collectors who pony up six-figure fees for Cremaster on DVD to enable illicit edits. Barney’s career, for all its conceptual excess, is predicated on an economy of artificial scarcity.