YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Creation commotion

A gender-bending fantasy film on human origin gets a Guggenheim exhibition that is more pageantry than art.

May 11, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

New York — Can a big museum show of movie memorabilia cement the international reputation of the young artist who also made the films? That's one question posed at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where "Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle" is on view until early June.

The answer isn't optimistic.

For the Rip Van Winkles in the crowd, "The Cremaster Cycle" is a much-publicized, lavishly produced, nonlinear, five-part movie epic -- combined running time: 6 hours, 38 minutes, 15 seconds -- which meditates on gender identity. Its extravagant style might best be described as Baroque Surrealism. Ever since the first of the five was completed in 1994, the individual segments have been shown to mixed reviews at prestigious international art venues. (All the films will be shown at Santa Monica's Nuart Theater beginning Friday.) Shot out of chronological order, the cycle's grand three-hour centerpiece, "Cremaster 3," was completed last year.

The enormous Guggenheim installation fills all the museum's ramps and side galleries, and it's crowned by a massive pentagonal projection screen suspended from the skylight, where clips from "Cremaster 3" are shown. (The Guggenheim interior provides the film's climactic set.) The show features elaborately framed stills from different episodes, together with displays of props and portions of the sets Barney built for the films. Like the epic movie and the really big show, the exhibition catalog is also huge -- 528 pages, detailing what seems like every frame of film produced by the artist, who's barely 36.

Barney has designed vitrines to display the sculptural props and a number of his feathery, medical-style pencil drawings. This display device, with its anthropological overtones of sorting and classification and its religious aura of the reliquary, was hugely popular in the second half of the 1980s, especially among European artists. Barney was an undergraduate at Yale then, and his work relies on numerous period motifs: the morphing of gender and identity in Robert Gober's queer sculpture, the ritual pageantry and art-object fetishism in Mike Kelly's work, the photographic costume dramas of Cindy Sherman and more.

On a less exalted plane, Barney's arch fantasy also recalls the vintage stagecraft of David Bowie. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars meet Hiram Abiff at the Diamond Dogs Masonic Lodge -- so to speak.

This may explain why the presentation feels so dated. The Guggenheim's great spiral ramp, partly covered by Barney in bright blue AstroTurf, blithely chews up the movie memorabilia.

The AstroTurf is intended to evoke the competitive aura of an athletic field, which is one of two main themes that run through Barney's work. The other is fashion. Barney was a high school football star, and he put himself through college working as a model. Autobiography is a source, but it's given a dizzying spin.

The "Cremaster" epic ends with the artist, dressed in a hilariously outrageous pink kilt and tall feathered hat, scaling the ramp's spiral walls like a mountaineer on Everest. Why? Because it's there. Along the way he encounters a line of Rockette-style dancers garbed as bunny rabbits doing high kicks, two downtown garage bands (Agnostic Front and Murphy's Law) wailing in front of a ragtag mosh pit, and a beautiful woman with crystal legs who suddenly transforms herself into a cheetah. (Aimee Mullins, a double amputee who is also an athlete and fashion model, seems to be Barney's female alter ego.) At the top of the ramp, sculptor Richard Serra splashes molten Vaseline against a wall, exchanging his famous alchemical material, lead, for Barney's trademark goo.

Make something eye-popping to look at, all this seems to say. And when you do, compete only against yourself. Such is the stuff of art.

"The Cremaster Cycle" is a creation myth. Every human culture has stories that try to explain its origins -- Greco-Roman tales of Titans emerging from chaos, the leech-child of Japanese Shinto, Christianity's book of Genesis. Logic and narrative coherence are never essential ingredients. Awe and astonishment are. Barney manages some of that, but there's a lot of tedium and imitative posturing, too.

The five "Cremaster" movies are pastiches of familiar genres -- musical, western, horror, gladiator -- and what better material than movies for fashioning a modern creation myth? Barney regards himself as a sculptor, and the time-space continuum being what it is, I'm ready to accept that a time-based medium like film can engage sculpture's spatial dynamics.

Los Angeles Times Articles