An Artist's Voice




Aesthetic Commentary

Blarney at the Guggenheim
by Michael Newberry



Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle is on view at the Guggenheim now through June 11th 2003.   The exhibition is a project of five films with some of the sets and props that have doubled as installations. A few of the more unique mediums he works with are tapioca and Vaseline. The theme of the entire project (1994-2002) is based on the cremaster, which is the involuntary muscle that creates the rising and falling of the scrotum.

An art critic for the Village Voice coos that he has loved everything Barney has done since a 1990 group show: “Suddenly, this 22-year-old appeared naked, in a videotape, climbing ropes, then lowering himself over a wedge of Vaseline and applying dollops of it to his body.” I think the critic was blinded by visions of a lubricious Barney lowering himself over a whole other kind of wedge.

He continues: “Since then, Barney has been able to do no wrong by me, which is exactly the kind of unequivocal wet kiss from a critic I hate.”

Nancy Spector, the curator of the Guggenheim, wrote the synopses of the five films of the Cremaster Cycle. Here is an excerpt: 

Cremaster 2 embodies this regressive impulse through its looping narrative, moving from 1977, the year of Gary Gilmore’s execution, to 1893, when Harry Houdini, who may have been Gilmore’s grandfather, performed at the World’s Colombian Exposition. The film is structured around three interrelated themes—the landscape as witness, the story of Gilmore (played by Barney,) and the life of bees—that metaphorically describe the potential of moving backward in order to escape one’s destiny.  Both Gilmore’s kinship to Houdini (played by Norman Mailer) and his correlation with the male bee are established in the sťance/conception scene in the beginning of the film, during which Houdini’s spirit is summoned and Gilmore’s father expires after fertilizing his wife.

She steers clear of evaluating the work in print, playing it safe by merely cataloging the content. Yet, she saves her normative abstractions for throwing the weight of Guggenheim behind her as she erects the artist's exhibition.

A scene from the Cremaster 3 film was set inside the Guggenheim. It is loaded with references to Las Vegas showgirls, game shows, mythology, blood, and ambition. Barney, dressed in Scottish garb, climbs artificial mountain panels on the outer ramp-walls of the Guggenheim rotunda, reminiscent of televised athletic contests. Symbolic of competing for and scaling the heights of the art world. Along the way he solves a spatial puzzle proving that he is adept at aesthetic technique. He overcomes a physical challenge by the half-woman half-tigress that bites him on the mouth, drawing a substantial amount of blood. This creates the double symbolism of Barney being Christ and the half-woman representing the predatory nature of dealers and agents. The wound to the mouth is suggestive that it is better to remain silent if you are to pursue your ambitions no matter how much of your life force it drains. The climax is when he reaches the upper most heights of the Guggenheim to find a zombie-like Richard Serra, monumental minimalist sculptor, decked out in industrial garb shoveling boiled Vaseline onto the top of a mini-ramp. Then there is a close-up shot of the oozing lubricant’s downward path. Either due to the spectacle of Serra at the top of the art world or to the absurdity of his shoveling slime on the inner ramp-walls of the Guggenheim rotunda, Barney falls over the ramp to splash into a bubble bath filled with showgirls. Ah, success!  The denouement is that he takes revenge on the woman/tigress and kills her.

Barney is following in the wake of the anti-art aesthetic of the Dadaists, but he is dangerously close to taking his expression seriously. Barney is more like a beginning filmmaker; being just incoherent enough to qualify as a postmodernist. In other rooms of the Guggenheim, Barney includes the film’s sets in the exhibition, such as the scores of plastic 6-foot pillars. For someone who enjoys art and intelligence, it was ridiculous to see an exhibition space littered with plastic pillars.

Also on exhibit are some of the quite brilliant still photographs taken from the films. A great deal of credit must go to the cameraman, Peter Strietmann. He has a great eye for composition and essential details. 

As Barney slithers up and down the heights of the art world, I think it is a good time for us to step back, way back, and question the viability of postmodern art. There is a shift of attitude by the contemporary postmodernists such as McCarthy, Huyghe, and Barney, a nuance of difference between them and the Dadaists. Duchamp had an overpowering sense of cynicism but he also had his wits about him, like his comment on the use of a Rembrandt canvas as a cover for an ironing board. He knew and played with the fact that he was an anti-artist. These post postmodernists don’t have this type of awareness. They sincerely express, as if it were a value, chaos, morbid states, unintelligibility, temporal mediums, and an overall negative view of humanity without any sense of irony; not that irony makes the absurd any less so.

David Rockefeller speaking of MoMA, though he could be speaking of museums in general, says: “As for the polemics over whether MoMA should choose a period and just not collect beyond it—maybe Abstract Expressionism; Modern but not post-Modern—I feel the museum has an obligation to continue to collect into the present, to identify the best, most creative artists of today.” 

In a spirit of goodwill towards humanity, it would be fantastic if curators and critics would reevaluate the meaning of postmodern aesthetics in light of human values; and, then, perhaps, we would see more than “blarney” at the Guggenheim. But then, they didn't assume the position of mounting postmodern art by using reason and values.



Michael Newberry
Published in the Free Radical 2003

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