When something truly new turns up in the art world, nobody knows quite how to talk about it at first. New words and categories are by necessity coined to accommodate unprecedented methods of art-making. Such has been the case with New York-based artist Matthew Barney. Just 27, Barney has made only eight pieces so far, but each has elicited intense scrutiny from the art world and generated reams of theoretical analysis.
What exactly does he do? It's hard to describe, exactly, but essentially through a series of arcane videos, performances, photographs, drawings and sculpture, he's conducting a highly abstracted multimedia exploration of his own body. Barney, a former football player who put himself through Yale by working as a model, examines ideas of physical transformation in ritualized performances that explore endurance, androgyny and self-imposed restraint. His work functions simultaneously on several levels, however, and also can be read in terms of Formalist sculpture, spatial relationships and medical biology.
"The goal is to create a language that can be understood on its own terms. It's like inventing a universe, and it doesn't happen overnight, because it's a cumulative process. But I have faith that art can unfold in its own time and on its own terms," says Barney, the subject of an exhibition at Regen Projects in West Hollywood through Dec. 3.
"Everything I've done is part of a single ongoing work about the balance inside a specific organism, and each project locates different pressure points within that organism and describes it further. I certainly draw from my experience, but I wouldn't describe the work as autobiographical."
Barney's debut in New York in 1991 at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery was hailed by the New York Times as "an extraordinary first show," and since then he has been able to support himself through his art. He was included in last year's Whitney Biennial and the 1992 Documenta and is currently in the midst of a massive project that will take three years to complete.
The five-site piece, titled "Cremaster," includes actions performed in a football stadium in Boise, Ida. (where Barney grew up), an icecap, a room at the top of the Chrysler Building, a racetrack on the Isle of Man and a bathhouse.
Included in the exhibition at Regen Projects are photographic stills and drawings from "Cremaster 4," a 40-minute video shot this year at the Isle of Man, which makes up the first part of "Cremaster." The video will premiere next month at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and will also screen in an exhibition in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, next September. Barney hopes to complete the second part of the piece at the football stadium in Idaho in the summer and then move on to the bathhouse segment the following spring.
Meeting with the artist, who took an afternoon break from installing his show to sit in an empty parking lot and talk about his work, one encounters a slender, soft-spoken young man dressed in regulation artist garb (a thermal T-shirt, black jeans and work boots).
The aggression necessary for Barney to perform his fanatically focused actions is completely absent when he's out of character, and he comes across as a gentle man with a good sense of humor. There's nothing slick about him either, and he's clearly new to being interviewed; asked a question, he can comfortably sit in silence for an unbelievably long time until he arrives at an answer he's comfortable uttering.
"Cremaster is the set of muscles that pull the internal sexual organs back up into the body when the temperature drops--it functions sort of like a thermostat," says Barney, lighting a cigarette that he smokes with the same slow care with which he speaks.
"The configuration of those muscles has been in every project I've done since 1990, and 'Cremaster' explores the form of those muscles in five different states. The first action, shot at the Isle of Man, involves a race--a single rotation around the island creates the linear movement of the piece. Each action involves a different cast of characters, all of whom land somewhere between 1910 and 1920. That was a period of physical culture when health cults first started appearing, Harry Houdini was working and the Victorian relationship to physicality was overthrown."
"Cremaster 4" has clear links with Barney's last multisite work, "Ottoshaft," which revolved around the central metaphors of former Oakland Raiders center Jim Otto and escape artist Harry Houdini. For "Ottoshaft," Barney made a three-hour climb across the ceiling at Regen Projects in the nude, making his way to a refrigerated chamber where sporting equipment coated with Vaseline was stored. For a segment of the piece Barney appeared in drag, dressed in a white swimsuit and turban a la Lana Turner--which prompts the question of whether he intends that there be humor in his work.
"Oh yeah," he says, "I find it funny--it's humorous in a tragic way.
"I was always a Raiders fan," he says in explaining "Ottoshaft," "and during the years Al Davis coached them they developed an aerial attack that made football much more interesting to watch on television. I wanted to deal with the point where preparation ended and the ball went into play, so I needed to use a center, and Otto interested me because of his number, which was 00. For me, that second zero is like a roving orifice that allows Otto to exist in an undifferentiated state of sexuality.
"Houdini had an intelligence that was completely visceral, and his art dealt with restraint, which is also central to my work. As is true in my work, Houdini's restraints were self-imposed, and through discipline he developed an intuitive understanding of them. People would invent locks to hold Houdini, but he understood the form of the lock so well that none could hold him. Houdini's work also dealt with time, which interests me as well. In wrestling, a two-minute round goes by in your head in five seconds--things move so fast that you can't intellectualize wrestling moves, and you have to know where somebody else's body is in relationship to yours by feeling pressure on different points of your body. You can only learn to do that through outrageous amounts of repetition and training."
It has been suggested by several critics that Barney is lampooning the zealotry and skewed sexuality of sports. He says, however, "I have no interest in satire. Yes, there's a lot of sexual energy in the cycle of training, which is highly psychological space, and that interests me. But I'm less interested in the more obvious sexual metaphors in sports--receiving, penetration and so forth. Every once in a while I go to a sporting event, but I've never really been much of a sports fan," Barney adds, casually smashing one of the central tenets of much of the critical analysis of his work.
Barney was born in San Francisco in 1967, where he lived until he was 7, and is the younger of two children.
"My father worked in food service, and my mother was an artist who made abstract paintings, so I grew up with art around," he recalls. "We moved to Boise in 1974 because my father got a job there. Idaho is a very conservative place, and I was lucky I had an aptitude for football because it helped me get the hell out of the state.
"I was recruited by Yale in 1985 to play football and planned to go into premed, but I also intended to study art. I discovered you can't do more than one thing in a serious way at Yale, though, because there are a lot of very ambitious people there, and the art took over fairly quickly for me.
"I was making objects and paintings early on, and the paintings led to experiments in my studio that I referred to as 'Drawing Restraint Pieces,' " he says of work that found him creating conditions that made drawing as difficult as possible. He would attach himself to rubber cords, for instance, and strain up an incline to make a mark on the ceiling.
As he was finding his own voice as an artist, Barney was paying his bills through modeling and discovered that his moonlighting gig was feeding into the art he was making.
"Working as a model taught me how to detach myself from my body and use it as a raw material. It was a good job and I learned a lot doing it, but it's a little frustrating to not be able to control your own degradation," he says with a laugh. "So I'm glad I no longer need to do it.
"When I started the 'Drawing Restraint Pieces,' I was trying to locate different pressure points and psychological narrative zones that I already understood in my body as an athlete. Having spent several years thinking about those zones, I developed a set of ideas that led to a definition of sculpture I wanted to free myself from. By transforming those ideas into a structure of narrative conflict, and developing characters to act out those conflicts, I found a way to explore the relationship I'd always had with my body as an athlete."
Barney's obvious forebears are Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman, particularly in their more temporal performance work, and he concedes that "their work was important to me."
"But because of the nature of it," he says, "I never actually saw any of it. My experience was with the secondary form those actions took--the documentation--which led me to reconstruct those events in my mind in ways I'm sure are inaccurate. I think that's OK, though, and is in the spirit of that work."
Unlike Acconci, Beuys and Burden, Barney has never done a live performance in public, and he says that "the idea of performing live doesn't appeal to me. I don't want to be an entertainer and don't work with an audience, because these aren't performances--they're video actions.
"I'm planning to do something live in a year and a half in Frankfurt, but generally I hate theater. I want the characters to exist simultaneously in an external space and to be able to fold into an internal space, to fluctuate in scale and maintain themselves as parts of a sculptural whole, and for me that doesn't happen so easily in theater. On the other hand, I'm interested in dealing with the space of a theater and would like to make a piece that is the theater it takes place in."
Barney's work, described by critic Jerry Saltz as "the most labor-intensive art I've ever seen," invariably telegraphs a sense of herculean effort and danger. One senses he could hurt himself doing the things he does for the video camera, and Barney concedes that "some of the actions have been very dangerous."
"But I don't intend that the actions look difficult," he says. "If I were to make a great piece, I think it would appear to be effortless because that's the nature of a great work of art--I've yet to do one, though."
Matthew Barney, "Photographs From Cremaster 4"
* Address: Regen Projects,
629 N. Almont Drive,
* Phone: (310) 276-5424.
* Etc.: Ends Dec. 3.