San Francisco

Matthew Barney

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

LIKE SO MANY ASPECTS of Matthew Barney’s practice, the title of “Drawing Restraint”—a series of works in several media that have occupied the artist since 1987—may be read in contradictory ways. Because the earliest of these works, included in a comprehensive retrospective this past summer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, involved physical procedures (often redolent of the gymnasium or the rock-climbing wall) impeding the artist’s efforts at mark making, the title is generally understood to denote “restraints placed on drawing.” But drawing restraint also signifies the delineation, or drawing, of restraint (whose representation may have little or nothing to do with the narrow definition of drawing), as well as the attraction (or drawing to oneself) of restraint. In other words, drawing restraint simultaneously encompasses aesthetic rigor, the notation or registration of prohibition, and (perverse or masochistic?) desire. Whereas the first of these connotations seems largely physical, in that bodily discipline is called upon to overcome an obstacle course in which the artist must run, jump, and parry in order to make his mark, the latter two are psychological in their double action of both registering and wishing for restraint.

In considering the range of works at SF MoMA, one recognizes that, like Bruce Nauman, whose poststudio experiments using everyday actions and simple feats of endurance were followed by the impersonation of such extreme personae as the evil clown, Barney has over the course of his career traced one of the most important (though least acknowledged) trajectories in recent art, from an aesthetic rooted in action to one devoted to fictional characterization—or what I like to call the “avatar.” At SF MoMA one sees such a development as Barney’s boyish loping around the studio during the late ’80s gives way to a different approach in his breakthrough three-channel video piece, Drawing Restraint 7, 1993. In the video, three satyrs attempt to impose restraints that are both agonistic and erotic on one another as they writhe around and through a limousine in New York (two of the satyrs attempt to draw a mark in the condensation on the car’s sunroof, while the third acts as chauffeur). With this fiction a new species of “restraint” arises. The material obstacles of his earlier works are elided in the personification of a psychological drive—the desire for dominance—which is also a biological grafting of man and animal.

In the gorgeous living mandalas the artist has invented since the early ’90s—including the Cremaster cycle and his most recent film, Drawing Restraint 9, 2005—Barney lays a Duchampian trap for viewer and critic alike. I could easily use this space to offer arcane interpretations of the events of the film (and indeed, the curators have done so in the exhibition catalogue). But I regard such interpretation as a trap; it is my feeling that the complexity and nonlinearity of Barney’s narratives are less significant for what they might mean than for how they reroute or short-circuit meaning. The schematic outline of Drawing Restraint 9, which was screened daily in the museum’s theater, is instructive: The film takes place on a Japanese whaling ship that functions as a huge organism devoted to capturing and butchering another kind of organism, the whale. The vessel’s upper deck houses a “living” sculpture of molded petroleum jelly undergoing cycles of stabilization and collapse (akin to the constant cellular transformation endured by whales as well as by human organisms); in one variation of this cycle, “Occidental Guests” (played by Barney and Björk) visit the ship, participate in a tea ceremony, and transform themselves into whales. This summary necessarily sounds trivial and even ridiculous, but the film is far from it: Every object and every substance perpetually changes valence between the triple registers of art, self-denial, and desire that constitute the multiple meanings of drawing restraint. Not only does Barney use vast technosocial organisms like the whaling ship as readymades, but, in true Duchampian form, he also reveals their polymorphousness. Petroleum jelly transforms itself from liquid to solid, Occidental Guests change from humans into animals—all things in Barney’s cosmology are always becoming other. The boundaries between objecthood and agency are consequently dramatically redrawn.

What distinguishes Barney’s bizarre narratives from kitsch is his deployment of two formal strategies: molding and viral transformation. Molding is the biological-aesthetic procedure par excellence, and one of the prominent narrative threads in Drawing Restraint 9 pertains to the discovery and manipulation of an enormous piece of ambergris, a substance formed through the digestion of the whale and expelled by the animal—in other words, the sea mammal’s internal impression. Barney’s sculptures, in contrast, are external impressions—tour-de-force objects composed of surfaces “taken” from things that have typically been narrativized in one of his films or videos. At SF MoMA, where these objects were arrayed in an interconnected network on a single open floor of the museum, there were several striking sculptures, such as Cetacea, 2005, a vast terrain of petroleum jelly cast in various plastics, whose careful registration as molds belied their seemingly formless (and virtually scatological) physical collapse. Photography and film, Barney’s other image-making procedures, have been widely discussed as indexical processes—that is, as optical molds. The readymade in Barney’s hands is thus a multitiered appropriation of surfaces, often but not always folded into volumes, or activated as narratives. What is utterly striking about his work—and what gives it, I think, its purchase on the present—is how it slides from chilly elegance into digestion, dissection, or shit, and back again. It is just this sort of action that I identify with the viral, a logic of infection or perversion. In the galleries of “Drawing Restraint,” I felt a constant tension between the aesthetic of milky plastics and aqueous acrylics (reminiscent of the Apple store’s elegance) and an absolute physical humiliation exemplified by the Occidental Guests’ mutual carving away of their lower extremities in order to become whales. Barney’s philosophy of restraint is compelling because it calls forth the brutality lying behind virtuality—it demonstrates the atavism that haunts our every commodity.

David Joselit is professor of art history at Yale University.

“Matthew Barney: Drawing Retraint” is on view at SF MoMA through Sept. 17.