Subliming Vessel: Matthew Barney at the Morgan Library : Deborah Barlow
Matthew Barney (Photo: Private collection, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels)
The Cremaster by Matthew Barney, a five part film cycle, was shown repeatedly during a retrospective of Barney’s work at the Guggenheim Museum in 2003. I drove down from Boston three times to see it and dragged my friends, family and children with me. It was all encompassing, brilliantly provocative, enigmatic and so engaging.
In the words of curator Nancy Spector, Cremaster is a “self-enclosed aesthetic system.” It is chock full of thematic proclivities and Barneyesque tropes that get recycled in so many unexpected ways. Barney is a 21st century William Blake in his ability to construct a highly evolved cosmology that is conceptually big and fearlessly presented. That Guggenheim show was one of the most polarizing art events I remember in recent history, and everybody chose sides. Was he the most brilliant artist of his generation (my view) or is he, as my son contends, a talent who became grandiose and corrupted by money and fame?
No matter where you come out on Barney, it is hard to find another artist who moves so easily from the epic-scaled Cremaster to a small, intricately intimate body of drawings and artifacts. For me he stands strong at both ends of that spectrum. I find his work beguiling, no matter the size.
As art critic Holland Cotter pointed out in his review of the show, “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.”
Medievalizing is a perfect word to capture Barney’s attraction to the arcane and the esoteric, to enigmatic symbols and symbologies, to the mystic belief systems of ancient Egypt and early Mormonism. In Cotter’s dismissive review (he is clearly not in my fan camp) he does capture this eccentric proclivity in the way Barney goes about his art making: “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.”
Subliming Vessel (what an evocative title with its suggestion of solidity moving into vapor) is appropriately positioned right next door to an exhibit about the Eucharist as portrayed in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. SV consists of over 100 drawings as well as “storyboards”—staged assemblages of items that revisit the narratives Barney has explored (or is still developing, such as his current project, The River of Fundament.) Each of these vitrines is a staged set of the myriad influences that brought Barney’s alternative realities into form. These curio cabinets are laid out meticulously and include open books that Barney picked for inclusion from the Morgan Library’s extensive collection of ancient texts.
I was so enthralled by the work that I spent most of my afternoon in the exhibit. For those artists and writers who cultivate the inexplicable, irritation can set in when their constructs feel forced or exploitative. While Barney’s work is definitely hermetic and highly personal in its iconography, the threads of meaning are there to unravel and explore.
Others feel differently about Barney’s accessibility, like Thomas Micchelli in Hyperallergic:
The drawings revolve around their own narrative logic, exhibiting a hermeticism that precludes the potential for communal experience or shared emotion…Barney assembles networks of personally significant arcana (a practice manifested in the scrapbook-style collections of clippings, sketches, art objects and other items housed in the massive vitrines) that remain inanimate and unintelligible beneath his shimmering surfaces. The artworks are beautifully realized, but the viewer remains on the outside looking in.
Not my way of seeing it, but I understand that point of view.