Barney, Matthew

▪ 2004

      In 2003, after a year's delay, the exhibition “Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle” opened at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Featured in its entirety for the first time in the U.S., the epic five-part film cycle—Cremaster 4 (1994), Cremaster 1 (1995), Cremaster 5 (1997), Cremaster 2 (1999), and Cremaster 3 (2002)—was accompanied by related sculptures, photos, and drawings and required nearly seven hours of viewing time. It was a lush mélange of surreal and often perplexing imagery involving fantasy-filled reconceptions of historical events, Busby Berkeley-style dance numbers, satyrs, swarming bees, and lots of petroleum jelly. Taking its name from the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles, the Cremaster cycle explored sexual differentiation and the various stages of creation, central themes in much of Barney's work. Many art critics praised his inventiveness and considered him one of the most important artists of his generation. Others noted his merely workmanlike cinematic values, such as cinematography, editing, and camera placement, and considered the cycle sensational and overloaded with “potentially significant detail.”

      Barney was born on March 25, 1967, in San Francisco and as a child moved with his family to Boise, Idaho. He excelled at sports—which would figure prominently in his art—and attended Yale University on a football scholarship. Majoring in art, he fused performance art, film, and sculpture. For his senior thesis he submitted a two-part video in which he appeared seminude and suspended over a vat of petroleum jelly, which he applied to his various bodily orifices. He graduated in 1989 and moved to New York City. His first solo art shows, in 1991, were videotapes of various performances, notably one in which a nude Barney climbed the walls and ceiling of an art gallery. Accompanying the videos were several petroleum-jelly sculptures. Later that year at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, he had his first museum exhibit.

      Barney's work attracted widespread attention from the outset of his career. Drawing Restraint 7 (1993), a video that featured people in satyr costumes grappling in a limousine, was part of the 1993 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and the 45th Venice Biennale. Desiring to explore “the life cycle of an idea,” Barney began work in 1994 on the Cremaster project. He served as writer, director, and producer and often starred in the films. The completed project first appeared at museums in Cologne, Ger., and Paris in 2002.

Amy Tikkanen

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▪ American artist
born March 25, 1967, San Francisco, Calif., U.S.

      American sculptor and video artist whose five-part Cremaster film cycle was praised for its inventiveness. Some art critics considered him one of the most significant artists of his generation.

      Following his graduation from Yale University in New Haven, Conn. (B.A., 1989), which he attended on a football scholarship, Barney moved to New York City. He had his first one-man show in 1991. This and later shows consisted chiefly of videotaped recordings of performance art—notably one in which the nude artist climbed the walls and ceiling of an art gallery—and petroleum jelly sculptures.

      His Cremaster series, named for the muscle that raises and lowers the testicles, explored sexual differentiation and the various stages of creation, central themes in much of Barney's work. The series consists of Cremaster 4 (1995), Cremaster 1 (1996), Cremaster 5 (1997), Cremaster 2 (1999), and Cremaster 3 (2002), which together are provocative and visually rich exercises in suggestive psychological fantasy and myth. Barney directed and wrote each video and appeared as an actor in most of them; their consummate special effects are accompanied by a pictorial lushness that has earned them a near cult following.

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Universalium. 2010.

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