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An artist's bold statements of ambiguity

Matthew Barney, an art world darling and a puzzle to viewers, says he's not a filmmaker but a sculptor, marrying objects to narrative.

May 07, 2003|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Before the prosthetic genitalia and molten Vaseline make their appearance, the scene seems normal enough. It's a Tuesday night in the CAA's Beverly Hills screening room and Matthew Barney, 36 years old and handsome enough to have paid his way through Yale by modeling, sits slumped in the first row, gazing up at a wide-screen version of himself. Show business as usual, right?

But look at the work. Titled "Cremaster 3," it's 182 minutes of nearly wordless shock, tedium, violence, spectacle, testicles, myth-appropriation and enough lavish imagery to send a focus group into the cinematic equivalent of insulin shock.

There's Barney on-screen, scrambling around in a kilt. Bleeding from head wounds. Slaying a cheetah-woman. Emitting unexpected objects. Scaling the walls of New York's Guggenheim Museum like a rock climber at Joshua Tree. There's a five-Chrysler demolition derby in the lobby of New York's Chrysler building and a harness race of horses that decay as they gallop, complete with visible ribs and dripping glop.

A plot? Not in any conventional sense -- although when the dentist's chair comes into view, you know nothing good is about to happen. When an intermission arrives, more than a dozen in the invited audience make for the exits.

But the man in the front row need not worry. Barney -- who wrote, directed, starred in and co-produced this work as part of five-installment film cycle -- has been a darling of the contemporary art world since his first solo show in 1992 at the Stuart Regen Gallery (now Regen Projects) in Los Angeles. Though many see him as a filmmaker, Barney considers himself primarily a sculptor, marrying objects with narratives.

Now there's a Barney retrospective on at the uptown New York Guggenheim following well-received shows in Cologne and Paris. New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman has labeled him "the most important American artist of his generation." Those who stuck with the Creative Artists Agency screening included an admiring Jeremy Strick, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

That's not to suggest, however, that critics and curators claim to entirely understand what Barney is doing. In reviews, the word "hermetic" turns up again and again, as do professions of awe at the sustained energy that Barney has poured into a project that's ultimately, and aggressively, about ambiguity.

"Cremaster 3" -- which will have its West Coast premiere May 16 at the Nuart Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles -- is the centerpiece installment of Barney's "Cremaster Cycle," which he began at age 25. Though production values have gradually improved, the cycle features virtually no dialogue, an elliptical narrative, often-excruciating pacing and a soundtrack that tends to slip from melody into mesmeric drone. (The Nuart will screen "Cremaster 3" and the other installments May 16 to 29.)

When he looks at other people's art, Barney says, he finds that disappointments come from "being given too much information. It's like cooking or something. There's a certain point where the cake falls. When something's overdetermined, it's killed."

For Barney's believers, his manipulation of symbols and his preoccupation with biology and gender -- the cremaster is the male muscle that raises and lowers the testicles -- are irresistible, as is his eagerness to dance on the thin line that separates high art from mumbo jumbo. His pop-culture glamour probably hasn't hurt, either; his domestic partner in New York is the Icelandic rock star Bjork, who gave birth to their daughter late last year.

Before he started on "Cremaster" 11 years ago, "I'd selected the locations and I had a sense of a progression that the narrative would follow, in a general way," says Barney, now seated on the patio at his Sunset Strip hotel. The artist, with chin stubbled and a loose Bic in the pocket of his work shirt, laughs easily and takes questions without affectation. He pauses often to think, sometimes in mid-sentence.

"I wanted it to begin in a very autobiographical place -- the stadium in Idaho where I grew up playing football -- and move eastward through these locations that, in a cumulative way, would gather a kind of mythological shell, to a point that it would end in a purely mythological place, in Budapest, the birthplace of Harry Houdini," says Barney. Then, "there would be a kind of trading that would happen, between an autobiographical beginning and a mythological ending."

How much does he worry about comprehensibility?

"Not that much," he says slowly, his eyes drifting into a distant gaze, focused somewhere beyond the patio. He pauses awhile.

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