The navel-gazing exercise in shock has long been the province of the angry-white-male artist: Think sheep-pickling Brit Damien Hirst.
Matthew Barney’s work, on the other hand, wants to be looked at and loved.
Barney, 37, grew up in Boise, Idaho, where he was a star quarterback for his high-school football team. At Yale, though, he was deemed too short to play football. So Barney turned to art, moving to New York, where he became a model and then a performance artist.
After early successes, Barney financed and produced The Cremaster Cycle, an epic work that combines sculpture, performance and film in the service of a project that is both absurd and overlain with symbolism.
Commercial-television extravaganzas excel only, it seems, when wardrobes malfunction — but Barney’s Cremaster spectacles deliberately seek out shocking moments.
His films operate on an underlying theme, borrowing imagery from the Freemasons, T.S. Eliot and choreographer Busby Berkeley to reinforce the artist’s fascination with the cremaster cycle — that point in biological development during which gender differentiation begins.
In one sequence from “Cremaster 3″ — the last and most ambitious of the films — Barney romps through New York’s Guggenheim Museum like a character in a video game, fighting off cheetah-women, taking part in a Rockettes dance sequence and pouring molten Vaseline down the building’s famous descending spiral. Nearby, pioneer punk band Agnostic Front and its followers rock on.
“Visually, the works are beautiful,” acknowledges Ginger Spivey, an associate professor of art history at UNCA. “There’s a lushness to them that is very seductive. They accrue meaning as you see each one.”
Since “Cremaster 4″ was released in 1995, the art world — often as fad-obsessed and trend-hawking as boy-band groupies and their agents — has been entranced by Barney. The artist feeds that culture’s dual desires for meaning and celebrity in an age that’s as shaky about the former as it is starving for the latter.
“There’s a myth that’s been built up around him, because of the economic support [for him],” admits Spivey, alluding to Barney’s ability to get millions in funding to tackle his artistic goals. “Is he critiquing culture or buying into the consumerism and patriarchal control of the art world? It’s very ambivalent.”
Barney is certainly plugged into, if not directly part of, popular culture — he’s the significant other of outre singer/actor Bjoerk. Yet the themes that animate his current work draw from a set of concerns — particularly mythology and masculinity — that are typically underrepresented in today’s heady art world.
Patricia Bailey, an associate professor of art at Western Carolina University, has organized a panel discussion on Sunday, Feb. 29, to discuss Barney’s work, and to kick off the week-long local screening of the five Cycle films. (Participants also include Spivey; David McConville of the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, co-sponsors of the event; Lorraine Walsh, an assistant professor of media arts at UNCA; and Mark Hosler of experimental sound-collage band Negativland.)
Bailey contends that Cremaster‘s popularity is about more than Barney’s celebrity.
“The [public’s] hunger for symbolic narrative is certainly there,” she insists, “or you wouldn’t have people packing the theaters for Lord of the Rings at the same time.” Like the latest Oscar contender from Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the Tolkien series, “Cremaster 3″ also clocks in at three hours.
And, again like the New Zealand director’s trio of mega-budget epics, The Cremaster Cycle is a work best understood by its diehard fans — but one that, nonetheless, seems to draw audiences who wouldn’t normally sit through this kind of thing.
As with all epic works, Cremaster‘s very ambition, while making critical judgment difficult, is the first thing critics speak of.
Movie-gazette.com reporter Anton Bitel noted that Barney’s films “have a magisterial sense of scale [that] is best appreciated on the big screen.” They are, he concluded, “a viewing experience not easily forgotten … although less patient viewers may find that it is not fondly remembered either.”
[Martin L. Johnson is a freelance writer living in Chapel Hill.]
The Cremaster Cycle shows Sunday, Feb. 29 through Saturday, March 6 at the Fine Arts Theater (36 Biltmore Ave.). A free screening of “Cremaster 1″ (40 min.) will be held on Sunday at 12:30 p.m., followed by a panel discussion. All other films cost $7.50/adults and $5.50/students (a portion of proceeds will benefit event co-sponsors the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center). “Cremaster 2″ (79 min.) shows on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9 p.m.; “Cremaster 4″ (42 min.) and “5” (55 min.) show on Tuesday and Thursday, also at 9 p.m. “Cremaster 3″ (182 min.) plays on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. For more information, contact Greg Lucas at 242-6663.