Monday, April 17, 2006

Matthew's Blarney

Saturday before Easter was unseasonably warm and sultry. The art troops were out in Chelsea en masse, and in their shirtsleeves. I returned to Gladstone to seek closure in my discussion of Barney. I made a final visit to The Occidental Guest.

One of the displayed sculptures – of masts, pulleys and hawsers seemingly ripped from the deck of a ship and crashed against its railing – made me wonder whether Drawing Restraint 9 ends with a tsunami, a descent into the maelstrom, or some other violent cataclysm of which I was unaware. This would make it a disaster film in the Hollywood mold of The Towering Inferno, and not merely the disaster of towering ego and overblown symbolism that I suggested in my previous posting.

A roomful of drawings depicts various sexually loaded hijinks at sea. A narwhal drills deeply with its tusk. A fleshy hermaphrodite is securely pinioned in bondage, ropes twisting around its breasts and penis. A whale/man penetrates a spread eagled woman. Other schematic drawings try to prepare a theoretical basis for the show. In the center of the room, there is an altar with crossed harpoon and flensing knife, festooned with a garland, and open cans of film beginning to unspool. A fussy parable of fish and film that, like everything else in the show, is rendered in trademark white thermoplastic. Could Moby Dick be far offstage? Hast seen the white whale? Because the white elephant is all too evident.

Near the gallery entrance, a complicated installation with an equally complicated title -- Drawing Restraint 13: The Instrument of Surrender – is typical of Barney’s sequential, jargon laden system of nomenclature. It’s actually the relic of a closed door performance, filmed at the gallery before the show opened to the public. The film is scheduled to be part of future museum shows. Dressed as General Douglas MacArthur, Barney dove into a vat of petroleum jelly, then walked across the floor, leaving a gooey trail, until he reached a worktable equipped with soldering iron, glue gun, roller and other tools (again, all rendered in thermoplastic), where he signed various drawings. The performance, with relic, unconvincingly attempts to conflate two historical moments in US/Japanese relations. MacArthur famously accepted the signed surrender of Emperor Hirohito, to end WWII, aboard a warship; later, as military governor of Japan, he lifted the ban on whale fishing. This conjunction hopes to define something meaningful in Barney’s abstruse, mythopoetic universe. But like many aspects of his cosmology, its presentation seems both over determined and somewhat less than significant.

It’s difficult to view the gallery installation as autonomous sculpture, and not as a display of (reconstructed) sets, props, and other scenic outtakes from the DR films, on which it depends so heavily for context and meaning. Which is too bad, because the sculptures are not without a formal, plastic, expressive value, at least partly due to the way they use their Arte Povera/Post Minimal materiality. Ultimately, Barney might not be doing himself any favors by burdening his sculpture with heavy conceptual underpinnings, which tend to drag them down into the murk. They might signify better without any Restraint, as it were, being given a chance to resonate on their own terms. But Barney prefers a total effort, a Gesamtkunstwerk, tethering his sculpture to films that vacillate between the ludicrous and the pretentious, with an occasional side trip to the unwatchable. His need to fashion an epic persona, to place himself at the iconic center of his work, to perform, to be a recognizable star – it suffers from hubris. But then, that’s show biz.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

No Occident, No Restraint

When Matthew Barney’s work first came to prominence in the early 1990s, it brought to mind the Warren Zevon song, Excitable Boy.

Well, he went down to dinner in his Sunday best
Excitable boy, they all said
And he rubbed the pot roast all over his chest
Excitable boy, they all said
Well, he's just an excitable boy

He took in the four a.m. show at the Clark
Excitable boy, they all said
And he bit the usherette's leg in the dark
Excitable boy, they all said
Well, he's just an excitable boy

I didn’t attend the recent press or invitational screenings for Barney’s new film, Drawing Restraint 9. But both word of mouth and published reports made me feel as if I had seen it – all 135 minutes of it -- even if most reviewers seemed to wish that they hadn’t. Having endured the entire 15 hours of his Cremaster cycle, I could certainly feel their pain. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, the flayed blubber of Restraint not far from the descending testicle of Cremaster. Barney’s aesthetic legacy from the earlier film seems to have survived remarkably intact. There is his narcissism, his addlepated attempts at creating a personal mythology, his fetishistic transgressions, his pretentious (and expensive) tropes of fashion, his overreaching symbolism, his staging of inane rituals, his plodding sense of narrative, his artless editing (like boxcars crashing together on rusty tracks) and insipid cinematography. Taken together, they constitute a singular cinematic achievement.

If no one -- least of all your fans, your handlers, and a chorus of High Art hierophants -- lets you know that it’s broke, then why bother to fix it? The art world, which worships power and money above all else, remains awestruck at Barney’s lavish scale of production, envious over his realized ambition, and enthralled with his seemingly unrestrained appetite for spectacle -- even if that spectacle, once the initial shock wears off, proves trite and intellectually unsatisfying. It is the Emperor’s New Clothes in reverse. No one dares to tell the Emperor he’s walking around naked. No one will sit Barney down and mention, quite gently, that inside his expensive external trappings, and his superficial audacity, there is a void.

The plot of Restraint, as best I can make out, involves Barney and his real life girlfriend (wife?), the Icelandic pop star Bjørk, as two strangers who arrive, separately, on a large, factory whaling vessel in the Sea of Japan. They are assiduously bathed, groomed, and costumed by a cast of solemn, silent but efficient Japanese servants. The entire ship seems poised to do their bidding. There are props, pageantry and rituals galore. Barney has never seen a parade, nor a vat of refrigerated petroleum jelly, that he didn’t like. Then B + B meet cute, in a tea ceremony, soon followed by some light underwater dining. Using flensing knives, they hack off and consume sushi-sized morsels from each other’s legs, which have miraculously transformed into tail-like appendages redolent of the larger pelagic mammals. The cabin fills with whale oil and blood. Love is strange.

Barney seems to realize that he’s not in Kansas anymore. Kilts, Celtic antecedents, the Agnostic Front, Mormonism, the Chrysler Building, Masonic rites, the Texas two step, Gary Gilmore, Richard Serra – the touchstones of his overheated Cremaster symbolism – would be out of place in the Far East. So, as a respectful "guest" in a foreign land, it’s no "occident" that he falls back on kitschy Orientalia. Were I not just a simple gaijin, I might resent the cliches of Japanese culture and character he offers up: the (geisha like) devotion to quiet, unobtrusive service, the (seppuku like) equation of love and death, the discipline of the (zaibatsu corporate) assembly line, the solemn tea ceremony, the sushi. When Barney trivializes elements of his own culture into bits of unconvincing esoterica, that’s one thing. When he applies it to a foreign culture, it can smack of racism.

But then again, I didn’t actually see the film. Perhaps you didn’t as well. For us, that leaves a concurrent show at Gladstone Gallery, which opened to huge crowds last Thursday. The acolytes, the scoffers, the star struck, the merely curious. They all showed up, and lined up like cattle on West 24th Street, which had not seen the like since…well, since Damien Hirst’s opening at Gagosian last year.

It prompted some idle speculation on my part. In last Sunday’s NY Times Arts & Leisure, Barney describes casting himself and Bjørk as a Ready-Made solution for DR9, since he admits not knowing how to direct actors. So what if they decide to leave the whaling business, go west, and buy a ranch? They could call it the Bar Double B. Given their propensity for ritual self-mutilation, and the heedless adoration of their herd of fans (another Ready-Made waiting to be exploited?), it should not be particularly difficult to extend the ritual into a group branding. With their acolytes proudly sporting B/B, B_B, or B—B on their rumps, or perhaps Barney’s signature emblem, a long oval bisected by a horizontal line. It was his Cremaster logo, and reappears as his symbol of Drawing Restraint: the lozenge held down by the line.

A cattle brand is an early version of the corporate logo, something that Barney has flirted with throughout his career. I reviewed his first show at Gladstone in 1991, when the gallery was still in SoHo. (This was in pre-Internet days. There is no link to the text.) He then had a fixation on Jim Otto, center for the Oakland Raiders, who played football with a plastic, prosthetic knee joint, and whose jersey number was 00: twin naughts on a field of Raider black. Barney, an athlete turned aesthete, was a graduate of Yale with a football scholarship in his recent past. In that first show, he referenced 00 and 0TT0 frequently in his titles, and in the work. I called it "the origin of pigskin conceptualism". Although this was several years before the first Cremaster film, Barney’s tendency to myth, and to glyph, was already quite evident. As was his use of petroleum jelly and plastic: the glue of sports medicine, the stuff of prosthetic surgery.

I arrived in Chelsea last Thursday afternoon to view several other shows in progress (including Nan Goldin’s poignant, visceral, if sometimes manipulative, memorial to her sister at Matthew Marks). Anticipating the crush, I dared to enter Gladstone around 4:15 pm for a preview of Barney. One of the gallery slaves immediately scurried over and informed me that they were still installing the work, which was not yet ready to be viewed, and would not be ready until 5:30. Fine with me. But as I was leaving, I noticed a small number of collectors and museum people peeping about undisturbed -- special friends, no doubt. It gave me pause. I certainly hoped the gallery was as forthcoming with them about the unfinished nature of the work on display.

When I returned at 5:45, it was already starting to get uncomfortably crowded, but no line had yet formed at the door. So I popped in for a very quick look, at what could be seen as either film sets or room sized sculptures and installations, constructed of thermoplastic, petroleum jelly and other white and off-white material, punctuated with various nautical motifs (like ropes, bulkheads and deck lights). It had a post minimal riff, kind of like Robert Morris gone to sea. Sometime in the next month I will try to return, and view it under less stressful circumstances, with (hopefully) no further restraint.