When something truly new turns up in the art world, nobody knows quite how to talk about it at first. New words and categories are by necessity coined to accommodate unprecedented methods of art-making. Such has been the case with New York-based artist Matthew Barney. Just 27, Barney has made only eight pieces so far, but each has elicited intense scrutiny from the art world and generated reams of theoretical analysis.
What exactly does he do? It's hard to describe, exactly, but essentially through a series of arcane videos, performances, photographs, drawings and sculpture, he's conducting a highly abstracted multimedia exploration of his own body. Barney, a former football player who put himself through Yale by working as a model, examines ideas of physical transformation in ritualized performances that explore endurance, androgyny and self-imposed restraint. His work functions simultaneously on several levels, however, and also can be read in terms of Formalist sculpture, spatial relationships and medical biology.
"The goal is to create a language that can be understood on its own terms. It's like inventing a universe, and it doesn't happen overnight, because it's a cumulative process. But I have faith that art can unfold in its own time and on its own terms," says Barney, the subject of an exhibition at Regen Projects in West Hollywood through Dec. 3.
"Everything I've done is part of a single ongoing work about the balance inside a specific organism, and each project locates different pressure points within that organism and describes it further. I certainly draw from my experience, but I wouldn't describe the work as autobiographical."
Barney's debut in New York in 1991 at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery was hailed by the New York Times as "an extraordinary first show," and since then he has been able to support himself through his art. He was included in last year's Whitney Biennial and the 1992 Documenta and is currently in the midst of a massive project that will take three years to complete.
The five-site piece, titled "Cremaster," includes actions performed in a football stadium in Boise, Ida. (where Barney grew up), an icecap, a room at the top of the Chrysler Building, a racetrack on the Isle of Man and a bathhouse.
Included in the exhibition at Regen Projects are photographic stills and drawings from "Cremaster 4," a 40-minute video shot this year at the Isle of Man, which makes up the first part of "Cremaster." The video will premiere next month at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and will also screen in an exhibition in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, next September. Barney hopes to complete the second part of the piece at the football stadium in Idaho in the summer and then move on to the bathhouse segment the following spring.
Meeting with the artist, who took an afternoon break from installing his show to sit in an empty parking lot and talk about his work, one encounters a slender, soft-spoken young man dressed in regulation artist garb (a thermal T-shirt, black jeans and work boots).
The aggression necessary for Barney to perform his fanatically focused actions is completely absent when he's out of character, and he comes across as a gentle man with a good sense of humor. There's nothing slick about him either, and he's clearly new to being interviewed; asked a question, he can comfortably sit in silence for an unbelievably long time until he arrives at an answer he's comfortable uttering.
"Cremaster is the set of muscles that pull the internal sexual organs back up into the body when the temperature drops--it functions sort of like a thermostat," says Barney, lighting a cigarette that he smokes with the same slow care with which he speaks.
"The configuration of those muscles has been in every project I've done since 1990, and 'Cremaster' explores the form of those muscles in five different states. The first action, shot at the Isle of Man, involves a race--a single rotation around the island creates the linear movement of the piece. Each action involves a different cast of characters, all of whom land somewhere between 1910 and 1920. That was a period of physical culture when health cults first started appearing, Harry Houdini was working and the Victorian relationship to physicality was overthrown."
"Cremaster 4" has clear links with Barney's last multisite work, "Ottoshaft," which revolved around the central metaphors of former Oakland Raiders center Jim Otto and escape artist Harry Houdini. For "Ottoshaft," Barney made a three-hour climb across the ceiling at Regen Projects in the nude, making his way to a refrigerated chamber where sporting equipment coated with Vaseline was stored. For a segment of the piece Barney appeared in drag, dressed in a white swimsuit and turban a la Lana Turner--which prompts the question of whether he intends that there be humor in his work.
"Oh yeah," he says, "I find it funny--it's humorous in a tragic way.