Matthew Barney

Published:  Esquire Art 2007 – 2010

When writers watch artists, they shake their heads in envy. Artists have more fun, more money, sweeter partners and longer orgasms. They look like rock stars. They seem to work just once in a while. And they can do whatever comes into their heads. A writer needs thousands of readers, maybe hundreds of thousands. An artist needs merely two or three curators and two or three critics – the fewer the better sometimes – to become famous and free.
Matthew Barney is famous and free. His work can be studied in an enormous book, the size of a massive phone directory, ‘The Cremaster Cycle’, based on set of films he has made. It is fascinating and difficult. The run of images it offers, upon which his reputation largely rests, can be taken as both meaningful and oddly hollow; it could be pondered over deeply by one person and flicked through quickly by another. (A cremaster, by the way, is a muscle connected to the testicles, and notoriously open to suggestion.)
Barney was born in San Francisco in 1967. He played football in school, studied art in college and made his living for a while as a model. He makes films, videos, installations, drawings, sculpture, happenings; he takes photographs. He lives with the Icelandic singer Bjork.
It is clear that he knows how powerful advertising images are – and movie stills, horror movies, photograph of surgery being performed, and dream landscapes beautifully photographed; and he knows how fragile mere drawings can look beside them. He knows that images are infinite now in their number but not as infinite maybe as our appetite for them, and not as infinite either as the way they can suggest other images.
Thus for Barney no image can stand alone. There are no icons or precise contexts or clear narratives in his work. There are juxtapositions and many mysteries and plenty of symbols and plenty more intended. He loves mouths and other orifices, he loves bright surrealism and American cars, he loves poses and show. He enjoys evoking ancient mythologies and setting up his own raw edgy systems, close to parody, but closer to the dreams of a well-stocked American mind in which the most flimsy object or image from sport or the movies or popular culture can be filled with ambiguous longing or embarrassed emotion or irony crossed with sentimentality.
His art is complex and suggestive and layered. He is moving restlessly around the esoteric and its discontents, the iconography of the modern and ancient worlds, the hybrid rituals of an image-laden universe. He is concerned also with his own body, the gleaming sexuality at the heart of the male self, as also a sort of myth to be deconstructed, played with. The psycho-sexual drive and the dreams surrounding it fascinate him. When asked if the work in his films was dream or strange reality, he could reply in all seriousness: ‘Well, I don’t really look at these films in the way that I sort of need to answer that question.’
Story is as central to his work as it is to the work of a contemporary novelist, but he can usurp it, turn it over and tickle it, and then suddenly take it very seriously indeed. At times there is an empty theatricality and a self-indulgence in his work which no writer could get away with, and if he were to be judged on his drawings alone he would not win any prizes. He pays too much attention to fashion magazines. The fact that he is ruggedly good-looking is not an unimportant aspect of his appeal.
The Serpentine show includes videos of Barney’s Drawing Restraint series in some of which he is filmed with obstacles preventing him from making a drawing. In others, such as Drawing Restraint 7, from 1993, something much more elaborate and funny, or maybe silly, is happening. In Drawing Restraint 9 Barney plays with images from Japanese culture and history. In all of his work, there is a sense of high effort and glossy quality, with immense and slick resources at his disposal.
There is something wonderfully Wagnerian and bloated and ambitious in Barney’s artistic rhetoric. He means business and he evades easy meanings. He has a very interesting mind, at times too interesting, and this makes him too ready to hammer home the dilemmas and dramas surrounding his own art. But his relationship to his dream-life is one of the most engaging and sophisticated of any living artist. His interest in making work which is both full of finish and absolutely open-ended makes him closer in the end to God than to Man, and thus even more the envy of all of us poor mortals.