|Photo Courtesy Regen Projects,
Matthew Barney has had just about the cushiest career of any artist in the last decade. Already a figure in the then-hip world of fashion modeling, he was virtually plucked from Yale based on a couple of naked rock-climbing videos and plastered on the cover of Artforum before his New York gallery debut. With that debut (at Barbara Gladstone, and consisting of weightlifting equipment cast from refrigerated Vaseline, and a video of the artist performing his mountaineer calisthenics across the ceiling of the now-empty gallery space) Barney received almost unilateral canonization from the Art World. This infatuation has continued and escalated up to and including the latest installment in his fully funded Gesamtkuntswerk, the epic Cremaster series.
Cremaster 2, the fourth installment in Barney’s film cycle, was heralded last fall by large, enthusiastic profiles in Time, and in The New York Times Magazine, which anointed Barney “the most important American artist of his generation.” Based on Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, the film spins a house of mirrors around the apocryphal union of Gilmore’s grandmother and Houdini. Empowering (or saddling) Granny with a mythological Queen Bee/Death Goddess persona, Barney loops Gilmore’s own tussles with bondage and the big sleep (as the first U.S. prisoner executed after the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976) back to this annunciation. Houdini’s patently American desire to escape death is only finally achieved by submission, setting up the joke for Gilmore’s “Just shoot me!” punch line.
The associative richness of Barney’s storytelling approach is undeniable, but identifying the admittedly obscure allusions is not a prerequisite for getting the movie. Tracking down and articulating the complex symbols and stories in the film is essentially a verbal pleasure, and Barney, as a rule, pulls back from description. Much as in a dream, where objects, people and scenarios are understood to be charged with potential meaning, we are freed to absorb such portents through a more primary, sensual engagement. Barney’s tableaux — including a cowboy couple ã dancing the two-step around an elaborately mirror-encrusted saddle; a filigreed earthwork of a rodeo arena made of salt trucked into the Bonneville flats; a soggy, streetlit Victorian world’s fair that doubles as a shrouded monster-truck and Ski-Doo trade show; and unnaturally but organically conjoined Mustangs idling in a filling station — are loaded with formal and conceptual detail, soaking in through our eyes, ears, and love for story and symbol, and are intimately explored with a lingering, tactile cinematography that reminds me of Andrei “Sculpting in Time” Tarkovsky.
Other aspects of the work recall Kubrick, Busby Berkeley and Méliès. The last came to mind because of the elabor
ate artifice of his sets, a quality that has been winnowed from the special-effects genre Méliès fathered in the interest of a smoother suspension of disbelief.
Barney’s work, perhaps inadvertently, raises a thorny and generally unspoken issue between the worlds of film and art. Big-budget films involve the fabrication of elaborate sculptural spaces and props that are often more aesthetically rewarding than most of the art seen in galleries. They are fabricated by the same craftsmen that realize (and often have more than one hand in) the designs of professional artists, using the same technology and materials. But these works are only received by the public as background elements to some alien slugfest, then moved to warehouse, landfill or some techie’s basement. By bringing his sets and props to the foreground as vehicles of a pregnant if hermetic symbology, and by subsequently exhibiting and selling them as highly sought-after museum-quality contemporary art inverts hierarchies of both the film and art worlds, and directs our attention to their overlapping territories. That pushes the envelope a little more than (former N.Y. art world enfant terrible Robert Longo) Johnny Mnemonic.
Given the nature of show business, what’s extraordinary is that Cremaster 2 not only succeeds in spite of the hype, but actually lives up to its improbable expectations. While avant-garde filmmakers may justifiably complain that Barney has hogged an unfair share of what little media attention the mainstream deigns to cast their way, and can sidestep hardboiled cinematic criticisms by hiding behind the skirts of Dame Art, Barney has, in fact, created one of the best artworks, best movies, and certainly the best hybrid of the two (including video art) I’ve seen in a year. While I have a far greater tolerance for slow-moving, wordless narratives than most people, I’m no saint. Yet I found myself riveted to the screen for the full 79 minutes of Barney’s new film, which contains maybe five minutes of dialogue. Extraordinarily engaging on visual, aural, narrative and emotional levels, the film also has graphic sexual content and a sweet if grotesque sense of humor — usually at the same time, such as in the exquisitely realized money shot when Gary Gilmore’s father removes his penis from Gilmore’s mother to reveal that his glans is, in fact, a little beehive and that he is ejaculating live real-size bees . . . Well, maybe you have to be there.
MATTHEW BARNEY’S CREMASTER | At LAEMMLE’S NUART, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. | February 18–21