Once, not so long ago, in a time sure to eventually occupy a mere footnote in art’s larger story, a group of artists calling themselves Conceptualists undertook to replace the objet d’art with a flood of mostly terrible ideas. Puritanical in their disparagement of art’s commodification, they reduced artistic practice to a series of largely self-referential actions, words, propositions, gestures and performances. Locking themselves into steel cabinets, crucifying themselves on Volkswagens, entreating their friends to shoot them with pistols, masturbating inside galleries, covering walls with meaningless writings and exposing themselves to third-degree sunburns, the Conceptualists embarked on a series of schizoid activities that they imagined would change the world.
Today, one encounters the watered-down legacy of Conceptualism everywhere, having been absorbed into the bedrock of contemporary art like acid rain. Among Conceptualism’s positive influences is a social and political drift that has, over time, grown in complexity and doubt as it has discarded certainty and shrillness. On the negative side is the continued compulsion of certain artists to fetishize the notion of "process." A poor justification for thousands of aimless performances, bad photographs, long-winded videos and absurdly recondite textual exegeses, art that prizes its "processes" (read: methods of production) above everything else has in turn spawned what is perhaps the last stubborn redoubt of postmodernist art-think. Works like these are the ultimate excuse for purposely obscure, boring art and deserve a description befitting postmodernism’s bogus tradition of meta-chatter: the post-boring.
Most folks would recognize the kind of art I am talking about at a glance. The lady who gnawed at a block of chocolate inside the gallery for days? Or the video projection that flashed ponderous Wittgenstein quotations onto the wall for hours? Or the guy who photographed himself burning his paintings and then exhibited the pictures? All of these efforts describe awful works of art that–despite their resolutely frustrating nature–make a peculiarly virtuous claim on our attention. Demanding that we linger, observe and experience such material precisely because we are bored out of our brains, it promises a therapeutic payoff in the form of an enlightenment that one must, presumably, suffer to achieve.
Enter Matthew Barney, the current emperor of gussied-up post-boredom art. Fine-tuning pointless tedium to new and unendurable heights, his current Guggenheim retrospective has arrived to remind everyone of just how totally immaterial art can be to the world’s most regular and extraordinary travails. Imperiously dubbed "The Cremaster Cycle"– after his films that take their name from the eentsy little muscle that lifts and lowers the testes–Barney’s exhibition is a taco salad of mixed media that includes sculpture, installation, costume design, music, impenetrable wall text and video documenting the five films that make up the artist’s dubious oeuvre. Installed inside the Guggenheim’s rotunda and several of its annex galleries and sparing no expense, the exhibition represents what is probably the biggest blowjob a New York arts institution has given anyone since the 2000 Armani show (curiously enough, also proffered at the Guggenheim).
By invoking the rather tired theme of gender and its discontents through repeatedly abstruse allusions to the phenomenon of sexual differentiation, Barney has made a career of satisfying the significant portion of the art world that takes its process art straight while enchanting an even larger constituency that likes its perversions in artsy frocks. The photogenic Barney began modestly enough in the late 80s as a bench warmer for the Yale varsity football team but then, seeing that his chances in the NFL would be few, Barney dropped athletics for art school. He gained a BA and began developing his first experiments in gender-oriented process art, and became a perfect melding of high priest and huckster of the sort that the art world loves to hug and kiss.
Barney’s early performances, videos and sculptural props look not accidentally like homoerotic calisthenics for the four-eyed, epicene art gang. One such work is teasingly called Field Dressing (orifill): A buck-naked Barney is seen lowering and raising himself from the ceiling with the help of harnesses while filling his orifices–ears, nose, mouth, anus, penis–with petroleum jelly. The piece proved to be a blueprint for all the work that followed, up to and including the "Cremaster Cycle." His action and the products they derived in the form of "documents" are transgressive only in their baroque exploitation of otherwise pedestrian perversions; they promoted a thumpingly hollow ambiguity while simultaneously taking on the appearance of meaning and closure.
From these auspicious beginnings was born St. Matthew, an ambitious artist/seer who has brilliantly constructed the one thing every successful conceptualist needs: the myth of his own genius. Hooking up with the powerful Barbara Gladstone, Barney exhibited the first of his meandering, utterly nonsensical "Cremaster" films only three years after his New York debut. Produced out of order for no particular reason whatever, Cremaster IV introduced Barney’s audience to the weird stagings that accompany the artist’s acts of physical endurance. Dressing the part of a fairy, a satyr or a tap-dancing dandy, Barney’s costumed, often trussed body suffers feats of remarkable, if pointless, hardship for the camera, like falling forty feet through a pier into the freezing ocean off the Isle of Man. Like the American fad for extreme sports that has shadowed Barney throughout the decade, his antics need no special rationale to be understood at face value. The sheer exhibitionistic impulse behind his actions continually provides its own inarticulate if vapid justification, quite independently of the Dungeons & Dragons storylines attached to them.
As perfect 90s institutional art, the subsequent Cremaster installments have offered art festivals and museums like the Guggenheim just the right mix of gender-bending frisson and corporate production to fashion an irresistible power cocktail. The fact that Barney somehow manages to continually up the ante on his production values also makes the undisclosed synergy contained in a show like "The Cremaster Cycle" palpable enough to suggest a visit by the IRS. At the Guggenheim, the marriage between institution and artist is made material in the absurd rococo props presented in the installation–the concrete-filled concert piano with sterling silver Masonic tools on the lid, the two spiral columns held in place by a deco plastic and metal gantry, the trough filled with molten Vaseline running the length of the rotunda’s ramp–that also appear in Barney’s latest post-boredom masterwork, Cremaster III.
Sitting through its soporific three hours at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I was reminded of why I have always been deeply suspicious of Matthew Barney’s work. Cremaster III is simply a long, pretentious film that, despite a few memorable images, never manages to transcend its noxious sexual essentialism or make a bit of sense (or even counter-sense). It’s hardly, as exhibition curator Nancy Spector would have us believe, "an epic saga" that transcribes "a new post-Oedipal myth for our contemporary culture." While the press release claims that it "upends the central narrative of Western civilization," Cremaster III exists entirely as an art-world production, funded, sustained and critically supported by people who fail, time and again, to look outside their hermetic precincts for adequate real-life contrasts. It pales by comparison with the effects and imagery of current and classic Hollywood films (read: The Two Towers and Busby Berkley).
Matthew Barney’s work exhibits a genius of omission that is quite unlike that claimed by fans of Matisse. Purposely vague in every aspect except production, Barney’s so-called narratives are impelled not by character, drama or storyline, but merely by the things money–make that lots of money–can buy: costume, props and location. Remove these, and his films become as transparently silly and useless as a pearl onion on a banana split. A synopsis of Cremaster III makes this point all too well:
"The ensuing scene in the Chrysler Building’s Cloud Club bar is a slapstick routine between bartender and Apprentice. Almost everything goes wrong; and these humorous mishaps result in the bartender playing his environment like a bagpipe. The various accidents leading up to this are caused by a woman… in an adjoining room, who is cutting potatoes with blades on her shoes and stuffing them under the foundation of the bar until it is no longer level–a condition that echoes the corrupted state of the tower. This interlude is interrupted by a scene shift to a racetrack, where the Apprentice is accosted by hitmen who break all his teeth… he is escorted to a dental office, where he is stripped of his clothes, under which he is wearing the costume of the First Degree Masonic initiate. An apron of flesh obtrudes from his navel, referencing the lambskin aprons worn by Masonic candidates as a symbol for the state of innocence before the fall."
And we wonder why the American public holds artists and the arts in such contempt? There are few things more frustrating than watching museum visitors puzzle over this idiotic drivel. Save your money and go to a film you will enjoy. The only lasting mystery to be had at the Guggenheim is how this bloated fraud was perpetrated on the art world in the first place.
"The Cremaster Cycle" through June 11 at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 5th Ave. (89th St.), 212-423 3500.
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