New York

“Matthew Barney: The CREMASTER Cycle”

Dark Polaris snowmobiles stand dormant in a row, their cinematic image dissolving slowly into crags of glacial ice, so that shimmering silver logos are superimposed, for a moment, on a sublime landscape—as if all of nature’s territories were somehow tamed, enveloped, swallowed whole by the crystalline lettering. This kind of poetic abstraction appears regularly in advertising but, showing up in Matthew Barney’s CREMASTER 2, 1999, becomes all the more evocative for its artistic implications. In the stylized execution of Gary Gilmore that precedes it, Barney restages the legislated death as a final, ritualistic rodeo ride, suggesting that something more is at stake than any single killer’s demise. Solitary horsemen cross the surrounding salt flats at twilight, seeming to riff on Richard Prince’s Marlboro Men; and the horseshoe-shaped arena housing the choreographed death scene, while evoking the Land art of yesteryear in both scale and location, literally bears the bold insignia of the CREMASTER cycle, 1994–2002. Everything mythic from the past—whether earth or the raw materials of art—seems already contained, re-presented, in media. And if Barney implicates himself by playing the protagonist (and he nearly always plays the protagonist), then one has to think: This death of the outlaw cowboy is, at the same time, the death of the outlaw artist.

By definition, the outlaw operates outside the law. (Out of the past, one stereotypical male outlaw is Robert Smithson, who died after soaring above those same salt flats.) This is not the case with Barney, who has more in common with the subject of Norman Mailer’s monologue in CREMASTER 2: “Within metamorphosis, Houdini becomes part of the cage that contains him. . . . He digests the lock; it becomes a part of him.” It is, to use the words of Barney’s Baby Fay La Foe, to whom Mailer is responding, a matter of transcendence—a transcendence that, to audiences visiting Barney’s Guggenheim exhibition, should mirror the popular metamorphosis of the term brand from hot iron pressed on flesh to cool media impressed on minds. After all, consuming (or subsuming) the framing device has been a motif for Barney throughout his career. Anyone ascending the museum’s ramp encounters soft vitrines (they seem cast from Vaseline) containing, say, relics of outlaws past—The Cabinet of the Man in Black, 1999, includes a Fred Biletnikoff Raiders jersey and a magazine ad for Johnny Cash—amid numerous signs reading PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH THE DISPLAY CASES. THEY ARE PART OF THE SCULPTURES. (Sometimes mechanisms of control are the best arbiters of meaning.) The CREMASTER exhibition is Barney’s most ambitious metamorphosis yet—his attempt (with the law on his side) to swallow the Guggenheim whole, making the museological “cage” into his own coiled digestive tract, turning the architecture and institution into one more element within his body of work. The site is specific: The ’90s artist should appear in the museum of the ’90s—the one that mainlined that decade’s model of corporate branding and globalization and echoed the corporate idea of total control and continuous expansion of identity. And so the museum bears all the markings of a branded environment, with flat screens dispersed about the space and Barney’s cult of self embedded in his trademark neon-blue Astroturf that carpets the lobby floor.

Barney’s metaphorical “chains,” in other words, are also those of chain stores. Consider him a boy in the bubble economy: While his luxurious, vacuum-sealed films matched the opulent air of late-’90s boom culture, Barney also emulated the formal logic of that culture’s economy, merging his (jail) cell with a network. (Indeed, for every hive, there is a honeycomb.) The CREMASTER series privileges modes of entrance and exit, holes in the floor, orifices, tubes, or windows that the camera approaches or passes through. In effect, images provide a system of portals; for example, beehives operate as imagistic, associative links between scenes. Barney’s editing technique then also enables the camera to move from macrocosmic to microcosmic scenario—from dancers on an open football field to grapes on the floor of a blimp’s claustrophobic cabin—and give them equal spatial value. It has the logic of a Web page, where images accrue the metaphors of space folded within space. And the divide between video image and physical object—or between cinema and art gallery or institution—is only one more editing cut, or “link” in the chain. In this light, the Guggenheim exhibition provides another neat culmination for Barney’s project: a kind of Cartesian pineal gland where concrete sculpture and architecture meet the abstractions of cinema and art history—and so a place where there is no way out but into the artist’s baroque narratives. (On this note, Barney should be considered a literary artist. He uses an almost medieval one-to-one language of signs in his work—which explains why his books and drawings tend to come off as the most remarkable pieces within his oeuvre. Visit the reading library, where he envelops a magazine-cover image of the Goodyear blimp in Vaseline—easy to miss, this curvilinear compartment off the ramp provides the only place where Barney is subtle, creating an unfamiliar tension in this exhibition.)

This meeting of the concrete and abstract calls into question the status of Barney’s objects. Should they be considered, for example, in terms of prosthetics? They do seem like material abstractions of the body: Watch his films; in them every object will seem some kind of bodily extension, overt or sublimated—from the latent muscle of a football blocking sled’s buttress to the implied sexuality of gas pumps and a Ford Mustang. A different kind of corporeal shadowing emerges when one considers Barney alongside other artists—say, Paul McCarthy. Ketchup for Barney becomes Vaseline, and excrement cement; male genitalia most often appear not in fact but in name. (They say that when something appears in advertising, you can be sure it’s disappearing from life.) Richard Serra’s Castings, 1969, might be the show’s oedipal umbilical cord, since Barney’s version of the piece winds around the rotunda in places—but the original’s risks of molten steel have disappeared in the appropriation’s cool and soft cast of Vaseline-like silicone. The body’s flesh exists in form, as does Serra’s piece, but only as a pale shade. Indeed, Barney’s sculptures are not props (a word that still operates in terms of use-value, not the exchange-value of Barney’s links in the chain). Rather, they bring to mind the story of Jackson Pollock—demonstrating his craft for Hans Namuth’s camera—being told that his painting was finished because they were out of film. It seems that one medium digests the properties of another, leaving the latter as a ghost of itself. (Actually, seeing Barney as “sculptor” in the CREMASTER series always makes me think of the Pollock movie—Ed Harris’s, not Namuth’s.) And on a grander scale, the work establishes the same relationship between art and cinema: The latter devours the former, and so the exhibition provides a kind of Universal Studios tour. Audiences see replicas, miniatures, memorabilia, while flat screens nearby show these objects “in action.” The objects are like Liberace’s diamonds—dazzling in reproduction but fake, and so never meant to be seen solely in “real” life. They demand immersion in the seductive, supple membrane of reproduction.

Of course, Barney himself has been sheathed in that membrane for the past decade, and if his CREMASTER series mirrors branding strategies of the ’90s—consider Niketown, where every aspect of the architecture is designed to produce a specific kind of branded experience and where products are imbued with that aura, even when they leave the “hive”—then Barney, like any brand, is bound to go through cycles. Already, at the Guggenheim, his culture-minded enterprise feels—and all brands are about feelings—out of sync with a postboom, wartime culture. (Come to think of it, didn’t his first, low-tech video productions appear around the time of the last Gulf War? To push the metaphor, until five minutes ago Barney’s status resembled that of the Missile Defense Initiative: overfunded, under-tested, and a favorite of armchair generals.) But within today’s art world, a different aspect of the brand is at work: It is almost always destroyed at the very moment it is overexposed. Having reached its culmination, Barney’s cycle—the past decade’s brand of art par excellence—provides a comfortable moment, as it goes out of style, for the kinds of critical scrutiny that his work has mysteriously eluded for so long. Ultimately, the critical change must benefit Barney: Change serves the brand. Any resilient brand absorbs the opposition as, for example, street credibility becomes essential in sustaining the product’s vitality. (Imagine, for example, as Barney grows older, comparisons to Wagner’s Ring giving way to comparisons to the Who’s Tommy.) The cycle continues, unless the institutional and cultural context around him is opened up for discussion—but that is something the outlaw artist might do, whereas the escape artist creates amazing myths in his world but doesn’t risk staying in ours.

Tim Griffin is senior editor of Artforum.