Before the prosthetic genitalia and molten Vaseline make their appearance, the scene seems normal enough. It’s a Tuesday night in the CAA’s Beverly Hills screening room and Matthew Barney, 36 years old and handsome enough to have paid his way through Yale by modeling, sits slumped in the first row, gazing up at a wide-screen version of himself. Show business as usual, right?
But look at the work. Titled “Cremaster 3,” it’s 182 minutes of nearly wordless shock, tedium, violence, spectacle, testicles, myth-appropriation and enough lavish imagery to send a focus group into the cinematic equivalent of insulin shock.
There’s Barney on-screen, scrambling around in a kilt. Bleeding from head wounds. Slaying a cheetah-woman. Emitting unexpected objects. Scaling the walls of New York’s Guggenheim Museum like a rock climber at Joshua Tree. There’s a five-Chrysler demolition derby in the lobby of New York’s Chrysler building and a harness race of horses that decay as they gallop, complete with visible ribs and dripping glop.
A plot? Not in any conventional sense -- although when the dentist’s chair comes into view, you know nothing good is about to happen. When an intermission arrives, more than a dozen in the invited audience make for the exits.
But the man in the front row need not worry. Barney -- who wrote, directed, starred in and co-produced this work as part of five-installment film cycle -- has been a darling of the contemporary art world since his first solo show in 1992 at the Stuart Regen Gallery (now Regen Projects) in Los Angeles. Though many see him as a filmmaker, Barney considers himself primarily a sculptor, marrying objects with narratives.
Now there’s a Barney retrospective on at the uptown New York Guggenheim following well-received shows in Cologne and Paris. New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman has labeled him “the most important American artist of his generation.” Those who stuck with the Creative Artists Agency screening included an admiring Jeremy Strick, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
That’s not to suggest, however, that critics and curators claim to entirely understand what Barney is doing. In reviews, the word “hermetic” turns up again and again, as do professions of awe at the sustained energy that Barney has poured into a project that’s ultimately, and aggressively, about ambiguity.
“Cremaster 3" -- which will have its West Coast premiere May 16 at the Nuart Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles -- is the centerpiece installment of Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle,” which he began at age 25. Though production values have gradually improved, the cycle features virtually no dialogue, an elliptical narrative, often-excruciating pacing and a soundtrack that tends to slip from melody into mesmeric drone. (The Nuart will screen “Cremaster 3" and the other installments May 16 to 29.)
When he looks at other people’s art, Barney says, he finds that disappointments come from “being given too much information. It’s like cooking or something. There’s a certain point where the cake falls. When something’s overdetermined, it’s killed.”
For Barney’s believers, his manipulation of symbols and his preoccupation with biology and gender -- the cremaster is the male muscle that raises and lowers the testicles -- are irresistible, as is his eagerness to dance on the thin line that separates high art from mumbo jumbo. His pop-culture glamour probably hasn’t hurt, either; his domestic partner in New York is the Icelandic rock star Bjork, who gave birth to their daughter late last year.
Before he started on “Cremaster” 11 years ago, “I’d selected the locations and I had a sense of a progression that the narrative would follow, in a general way,” says Barney, now seated on the patio at his Sunset Strip hotel. The artist, with chin stubbled and a loose Bic in the pocket of his work shirt, laughs easily and takes questions without affectation. He pauses often to think, sometimes in mid-sentence.
“I wanted it to begin in a very autobiographical place -- the stadium in Idaho where I grew up playing football -- and move eastward through these locations that, in a cumulative way, would gather a kind of mythological shell, to a point that it would end in a purely mythological place, in Budapest, the birthplace of Harry Houdini,” says Barney. Then, “there would be a kind of trading that would happen, between an autobiographical beginning and a mythological ending.”
How much does he worry about comprehensibility?
“Not that much,” he says slowly, his eyes drifting into a distant gaze, focused somewhere beyond the patio. He pauses awhile.
“What’s been very satisfying,” he says finally, “is doing the exhibition, and watching people ‘read’ the work, with all its elements before them. I think it’s having its best chance right now to communicate, with the objects and the drawings and the photographs and the films together. I think it can be read....I think the films on their own have that same chance, but I don’t think it necessarily would happen in one screening.”
Barney, who was introduced to the contemporary art scene by his mother and graduated from Yale’s art program in 1989, has been preoccupied from the beginning by sports and biology. He started out making sculptures from Vaseline, tapioca and athletic equipment, and the novelty and internal logic of his work quickly attracted the attention of contemporary galleries and collectors looking for the next big thing.
Still, when he began the “Cremaster” project, he wasn’t sure where the money would come from, or how the work would be seen. He guessed it all might take six years. Since then, the project has come to include supporting roles for Ursula Andress, Norman Mailer, artist Richard Serra and athlete and below-the-knee double amputee Aimee Mullins. The artworks at the films’ core -- drawings, photographs, sculptures and limited-edition videos -- are sold for tidy sums by his New York dealer, Barbara Gladstone, and sometimes resold for even more. (At a Christie’s auction three years ago, for instance, a collection of five color stills from the first “Cremaster” installment fetched $182,000.)
For those who can’t afford gallery prices and high-end auctions, there are Cremaster books, posters and CDs featuring film music of composer Jonathon Bepler (who has scored all of Barney’s films). Palm Pictures is distributing the commercial release of “Cremaster 3" (an arrangement that involves CAA ). Film Forum, the Greenwich Village independent movie house that is currently showing the entire “Cremaster” cycle, reported 11,000 tickets sold over the April 25 to 27 weekend.
“We just can’t believe that 11,000 people went to see those films” in a weekend, says longtime Barney collaborator and “Cremaster 3" associate producer Chelsea Romersa.
Each installment of the cycle was shot on successively more sophisticated video systems; all have been transferred to 35-millimeter film. The first effort, co-produced with several sponsors, cost about $200,000. The last, a three-year effort, cost about $4 million, by the artist’s estimate.
“It was supposed to cost about $4 million,” corrects his dealer, Gladstone, who has co-produced all of Barney’s films. “In the end it was closer to $5 million.”
Throughout the cycle, Barney shows his fascination with the early weeks in an embryo’s development when gender remains undifferentiated, and the consequences that follow from differentiation. Like Joyceans puzzling over “Finnegan’s Wake” or Wagnerians mulling the “Ring” cycle, Barney’s fans sort through his scenes of Masonic rites and bagpipes, sniffing out layered references. (Those demolished Chryslers in “Cremaster 3"? From 1967, the year of Barney’s birth.)
The first time she saw Barney’s films, Bjork told an Index Magazine interviewer two years ago, “I thought Matthew’s work was the closest I’d ever come to seeing my dreams.”
Columnist Aaron Krach of New York’s Gay City News, pondering the project’s recurrent testicles, couched his praise this way: “He’s surely the gayest straight artist working today.”
Yet Barney says that last fall, when he became a father, he found the experience a sort of confirmation following so many years of ruminating on biology and destiny.
“When you see a child emerge into the world, and know immediately where to get food, how to breathe and in some ways how to take care of themselves, it puts me at ease,” says Barney. “It’s probably not unrelated to the way that a project of this scale, at a certain point, gains its own will, develops its own ego. It becomes greater than the sum of its parts....And that’s something that will probably keep me working in the filmmaking capacity.”
However, he confesses, “I feel I’ve been ruined as a film fan.” In the course of studying film genres in his experimentation with form, he says, he’s grown impatient and finds himself reaching for the fast-forward button -- a development that may intrigue those in the audience who have squirmed through the often-deliberate pacing of his own work.
As for his next move, “I’m making a lot of drawings at the moment, which I’ll show some of in Venice in June. It’s sort of typical for me to go back to drawing in between projects, a way to clean the palate,” he says. “But I’ll continue to use the same language. Certainly the ‘Cremaster’ cycle is finished. But I haven’t finished exploring that relationship between object-making and the moving image.”
Times art critic Christopher Knight reviews Barney’s exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York and “The Cremaster Cycle” in Sunday’s Calendar.
‘The Cremaster Cycle’
Where: Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles
When: “Cremaster 3" May 16-22 and May 29; “Cremaster 1 and 2,” May 23-25; “Cremaster 4 and 5,” May 26-28
Contact: (310) 478-6379