Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle,” a quintet of films and related photographs, sculptures and paraphernalia produced from 1994 to 2002, took viewers from the Isle of Man to Boise, Idaho; Vienna to the Bonneville Salt Flats and finally to New York. There, the Guggenheim Museum became a location for the final film and the site of a 2002-03 exhibition surveying the whole cycle -- an investigation of artistic ambition and the intertwinings of sex, commerce, politics, power, mysticism, dysfunction, ingenuity, redemption, metamorphosis and Western history, all orbiting Barney’s core theme of creation and transformation in the face of resistance.
Barney’s devotion to the theme goes back to 1988, when he was a student at Yale and began the “Drawing Restraint” series, which “Cremaster” sidelined and eclipsed. If you saw the spectacle he made of the Guggenheim, it might be difficult to believe, but he has topped it at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Here, “Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint,” organized jointly by the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, and the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, Korea, surveys the “Drawing Restraint” projects and reveals Barney as more ambitious than ever and delivering stronger, more resolved work. SFMOMA is the only U.S. venue for the exhibition, which continues through Sept. 17 (www.sfmoma.org).
The weak link in “Cremaster” was the relationship between the films and objects. The latter often depended heavily on the films and seemed produced from a priority list that put set dressing and souvenir production above making compelling sculpture. Meanwhile, the lesser of the films were little more than extended records of Barney and his cohorts self-indulgently playing around with the props.
Only two installments, the second and fourth “Cremaster,” offered both compelling sculptures and films that maintained engaging narratives while revolving around objects; watching them was as much a sculptural experience as a cinematic one. Barney’s latest film, “Drawing Restraint 9,” and the related sculptures at the core of the SFMOMA exhibition succeed as his best previous work did and go well beyond it.
Although much of Barney’s work has taken a theatrical and cinematic turn, its roots are in documenting an engagement among bodies, objects, materials and circumstances.
On view at SFMOMA are early videotaped performances in which Barney made drawings on walls and ceilings while dangling from ropes, jumping on trampolines or clinging to handholds and footholds that made his task both possible and difficult.
These events leverage the artist’s intent, will and skill against the physical limits of body, space, substance and form. They descend from the same literalist’s fascination with movement, media and product, fused with spectacle, that runs through American action painting, European Nouveau Realisme, Japan’s Gutai group, and post-minimalist investigations of performance and sculpture. These include Gordon Matta-Clark’s alterations of architecture, Barry Le Va’s self-punishing pairing of his own insistent force and the immovability of walls, Robert Smithson’s pouring and piling of raw material, and Richard Serra’s flinging of molten lead into the junction of a floor and wall to create a solidified object referring to nothing more than process, material properties and situation.
Although some predecessors eschewed reference or narrative, Barney wraps even the most abstract gestures and investigations in cultural references, jockish athleticism and sexed-up confrontationalism. He seems to channel Lynda Benglis and Robert Morris in a new performance video in which he dons a Douglas MacArthur costume and puffs a corncob pipe before climbing his way across SFMOMA’s rotunda to make a drawing. Barney capitalizes on the architecture, as the museum’s crossed round windows and chevron-patterned skylight take on military connotations.
Barney doesn’t try to hide his indebtedness or to cash in on others’ investments. Instead he pays off, taking what he’s learned and remaking it at a new level. Nowhere is this more evident than with the sculptures dominating the museum’s fourth floor. Carefully fabricated while unabashedly messy, formal and formless, they deal in the simple literalism of trying to bind, contain, divide, combine and solidify materials -- principally hundreds of gallons of petroleum jelly formed into masses, and casts of such masses. Awe-inspiring in mass and form alone, the works are charged with symbolism: a collapsed ramp; a gelatinous mass that has fallen like a giant souffle, its ooze held back by rectangular plates that divided it like walls; or a loaf-like object made largely of shrimp shells and seashells that simulates ambergris and is bigger than you and me.
The sculptures relate directly to the film, which is the second of Barney’s attempts to take “Drawing Restraint” in a more heavily theatrical direction. It is the tale of a groom and bride, played by Barney and his real-life partner, pop star Bjork, who bear what seem to be vestigial genital orifices on the backs of their necks. On a Japanese whaling ship, they go through preparation rituals as crewmen equipped with a giant mold cast a petroleum jelly aspic in the form of Barney’s “field” emblem -- a lozenge-like shape crossed through with a bar. When a mass of ambergris discovered by pearl divers is delivered to the ship, the bar section is cut from the aspic and replaced with the mass. When the mold is pulled, the cast petroleum jelly shows markings suggesting the curvature of a ship’s bow and the throat grooves on a whale. The aspic slumps, gets carved up and is melted. The liquid floods a tearoom, where the bride and groom hack away on one another’s bodies, releasing inner sea-mammal forms that, after inaugurating their blowholes, escape together into the sea. And that’s a very condensed version.
What this narrative is about remains open, but what the film is about is clear. It is a story woven around transformation; control and release; material; form; and space. It is about watching substances congealing into form, knives separating flesh, blood clotting in oily liquid. It is about the difference between pearls and ambergris, and between the confines of a tearoom and the expanse of the sea.
The 145-minute film suffers from Barney’s inability to be ruthless in editing. As with his other films, you likely won’t remember the plot, which is between difficult to remember and unmemorable. But an initial confusion and a feeling of being put upon will fade behind images that linger in your mind. The scenes more compellingly delve into the complexities of material, form, movement and space than any of Barney’s past films -- and many other great films, for that matter.
Then again, even if you miss the film and never see it in your life, it won’t diminish the stand-alone reward of seeing -- or having encountered -- Barney’s sculptures and performance videos. They also are among the best of his work, and of work being made.