May 9 Wed 2013 MORGAN LIBRARY MATTHEW BARNES "Subliming Vessel"
Storyboards of film works and new weight lifting performance displayed Rich content intrigues, but artistic value divides critics Morgan curator conducts retrospective above fray In Subliming Vessel, the Drawings of Matthew Barney, previewed for the press on Thursday morning, the Morgan presents two galleries of the work of an artist who arouses sharply divided views among major media critics in the US, sometimes even divided in the same critic. =================================================== May 9, 2013 Fixations of a Fabulist, Hermetic and Mystical By HOLLAND COTTER The Morgan Library, with its Gospels, missals and reliquaries, is just the right place for “Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney,” the first survey of graphic work by the most medievalizing of American contemporary artists. Encased in thick, pale, greasy-looking plastic frames, Mr. Barney’s drawings of the past two decades have the look of precious pages from sacred books. His images, with their reduction of the body to smears and stains, and emphasis on redemption through fleshly mortification, suggest sources in penitential religion, filtered through Duchamp, Sade and extreme sports. Mr. Barney, who was born in 1967, first came to the art world’s attention with a New York solo show in 1991. He was just two years out of Yale, but as an undergraduate had already developed a version of the body-centered, performance-based work that would bring him fame. In a 1988 piece called “Drawing Restraint II,” he had suspended himself in a moving harness to produce graphite images on his studio walls. The idea of physical handicapping as a spur to creativity has remained a basic tenet of his art. At the same time, he tempered the aura of machismo that athleticism evokes by playing around with androgyny, exchanging jockstraps for evening gowns and heels. And all of these moves were couched within an explanatory discourse — patched together from biology, psychology, myth and popular culture — as elaborate and knotty as any theological system proposed by 13th-century scholasticism. All together, it was a sexy package. Much was made of Mr. Barney’s background as a college jock and former male model. His gender-blending could be construed as an acceptable version of identity politics by a segment of the art world that otherwise disdained the trend. He was credited with bringing narrative fantasy back into art, particularly in his series of “Cremaster” films, which began to appear in 1994. Only a few people pointed out that feminist art of an earlier generation had anticipated almost all his moves. His “Drawing Restraint” performance was prefigured by Carolee Schneemann’s 1973-76 “Up To and Including Her Limits,” in which she drew on walls while suspended from a sling. Androgyny had been explored by Eleanor Antin, Adrian Piper, Martha Wilson and other female artists. As for fantasy narrative, Rose English and Ulrike Ottinger were at the head of a long line in the 1970s. Even Mr. Barney’s plastic frames seem to owe a debt, this one to Eva Hesse. What he had going for him was an expansively hermetic sensibility. His actions and stories were deeply abstruse, but epic, apocalyptic. And this sense of the idiosyncratic promoted to the realm of myth is the strength of this drawings show that opens on Friday, organized by Isabelle Dervaux of the Morgan and the art historian Klaus Kertess in collaboration with the artist. There’s a lot of work to see, none of it simple. The show extends over two galleries. Technically, it’s a survey of drawings from 1988 to the present, but it’s presented in chronologically mixed groupings, rather than year by year. Almost all the drawings are in some way related to the artist’s films or performances, either as preliminary studies or spinoffs. There are also several vitrines holding what Mr. Barney calls storyboards: collagelike arrangements of sketches, photographs, books, magazines and Internet clips that serve as sources for specific projects. Finally, the show includes a new installation consisting of the traces of the latest version — the 20th — of a “Drawing Restraint” performance. A few days before the opening, the artist, alone in a gallery, executed a wall drawing while hefting an Olympic-grade weight bar and using it as a graphic tool. The drawing remains, as do related props: the weight bar, a towel and containers of graphite powder, chalk and petroleum jelly, a lubricant, voluptuous and creepy, that Mr. Barney long ago adopted as a signature medium. The storyboards give a sense of how Mr. Barney operates as a fabulist. Sequential logic is not necessarily the dominant mode. Most of his films are based on networks of connect-the-dots symbols spun around central characters, often historical personalities, in whom Mr. Barney finds examples of people who, against various forms of resistance, have to an unusual degree controlled their fates. In a somewhat esoteric pantheon we find, for example, the murderer Gary Gilmore, who vehemently insisted on being executed, by firing squad, for his crimes; the football player Jim Otto, who never missed a game even when he had to be fitted with artificial knees; the escape artist Harry Houdini, who made a career of courting death; and the pugilist-novelist Norman Mailer, who took repeated critical pummelings late in life but kept coming back with more books. One of those books, the 1983 “Ancient Evenings,” was a kitschy tale, part history, part philosophy, part soft pornography, set in New Kingdom Egypt. And it serves as a foundational text for Mr. Barney’s most recent project, the seven-part “opera” called “River of Fundament,” which transfers the Egyptian drama of rebirth, as described in the Book of the Dead, to Los Angeles, Detroit and New York. It’s all there in impressionistic form in related storyboards that include toy models of Ford cars; photos of dead ibises and images of the Isis and Osiris; copies of Mailer’s book annotated and ornamented by Mr. Barney; and papyrus fragments from the Morgan collection. And these boards only begin to suggest the range of references tapped elsewhere: to Mormonism, Masonic ritual, Celtic mythology, the whaling industry, 1930s architecture, sex, death, Richard Serra, reproduction, Ernest Hemingway, “Leaves of Grass” and ecstatic religions. Mr. Barney’s recurrent themes are death and resurrection, or transformation, and they’re the abiding subjects of his drawings. Early ones tend to be abstract and diagrammatic, soiled Joseph Beuysian-looking little things dealing with biological dynamics of pressure and release. As time goes on, the images become more figurative and illustrational. Characters appear, half-human, half-beast; full-bodied or in the process of decomposing. Skeletons recur, dressed and animated. Mr. Barney has spoken of North European Renaissance artists like Albrecht Altdorfer and Hans Baldung Grien as influences, though he seems also to have paid close attention to that great modern master of the comedic macabre, James Ensor. And the drawings are funny, or can be, though with their dense allover weaves of light-touch, hair-fine lines and stippling, they’re hard to see. The images in the artist’s film are bold; his drawings crabbed and recessive, retreating into their frames as if trying to hide a formal tentativeness or awkwardness. And they can be awkward. He’s not good at drawing figures unless he gussies them up with ornamental effects. But a lot of artists aren’t, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problems I have with the work are more fundamental. I find almost nothing about Mr. Barney’s tightly programmed content deeply engaging. His heroes, or antiheroes, are not mine. I feel no connection to the Iron John-ish ideal of self-punishment as transcendence that seems to underlie his thinking about gender, including androgyny. He obviously wants to shoot for big themes — heaven and hell — but self-conscious obscurantism produces a tight, cluttered, closed system. And yet — a serious “and yet” — that system works as a total experience because it is so thoroughly imagined and so of a piece. The films are most effective in this way, but the drawings can be too. They’re easy to skim over. But once you delve into them, and immerse yourself in their fanatically detailed, alchemical Dark Ages world, it’s hard to get back out. “Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney” runs through Sept. 2 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street; (212) 685-0008, themorgan.org.Read More