The elaborately baroque art of Matthew Barney puts some people off, and I count myself among them. His Olympian athleticism, symbol-laden costume dramas and obsession with petroleum jelly can be fascinating, but they can also feel chilly and remote.
The Morgan Library & Museum’s staging of his first drawing retrospective, Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney, seemed like the perfect opportunity to cross the psychological distance circling his monumentally inner-directed work. What medium is more personal than drawing, after all, and what venue does drawing better than the Morgan? Still, it took me a month to get there.
The exhibition, which is spread over three rooms, including the lobby between the two main galleries on the first floor, meets the museum’s very high bar for research and presentation. But the Morgan treatment, which has served artists from William Blake to Philip Guston so well, catches Barney up short.
The installation is as classy as they come, with large, wooden vitrines offsetting the drawings’ space-age, artist-designed frames, but the artwork, as Holland Cotter pointed out in his New York Times review, is “hard to see.”
Barney’s barely-there way with a pencil or a pen doesn’t do much to sink the image into your brain, a liability that’s exacerbated when red or black paper is used as a ground. But the drawings are also difficult to discern.
Many of them resemble Neo-Symbolist imaginings excreted from the oeuvre of Odilon Redon. Deeply interwoven with Barney’s Cremaster film cycle and other projects such as his Drawing Restraint performances and his filmed opera, River of Fundament, the drawings revolve around their own narrative logic, exhibiting a hermeticism that precludes the potential for communal experience or shared emotion.
Cotter put it plainly when he said:
The problems I have with the work are more fundamental. I find almost nothing about Mr. Barney’s tightly programmed content deeply engaging. His heroes, or antiheroes, are not mine. […] He obviously wants to shoot for big themes — heaven and hell — but self-conscious obscurantism produces a tight, cluttered, closed system.
At first I thought my failure to connect was the result of not having been drawn into Barney’s cosmos at the outset. I had seen bits and pieces of the Cremaster films, along with still images, verbal descriptions and critical reviews. The same is true of the artist’s early performances. Nothing about them, over the course of a celebrated twenty-year career, has enticed me to learn more about the artist or his symbology, and these slight drawings do little to change that.
Which surprised me, because Barney is the kind of artist — incorporating autobiography, literature and myth into a grand statement — that I find the most intriguing. It’s not that he is holding anything back: the psychosexual grotesqueries on display evince an uninhibited imagination, and the drawings are as direct and unguarded as the subject matter. They simply have no pull.
I recall being absorbed by Barney’s video of a prancing satyr in the New Museum’s recent exhibition, NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. I admired its technical brilliance, but once it ended I forgot about it.
The same emphasis on production values is brought to bear on the elaborate frames surrounding the drawings in Subliming Vessel. These thick, design-intensive objects, along with the vitrines, read as failed attempts to physically anchor an agglomeration of ideas that never quite adhere to a formal or material spine.
An example of this nebulousness can be found in one of the wall texts, which describes a suite of five semi-abstract drawings mounted in frames of epoxy, plastic and plaid:
Graphite pencil, lacquer, and petroleum jelly on paper in cast epoxy, prosthetic plastic, and Manx tartan frames
CREMASTER 4, which was completed first in the CREMASTER cycle, has a tripartite structure reflecting the three-legged triskelion, symbol of the Isle of Man, where the film was shot. The film combines references to the island’s rich folklore and to the Tourist Trophy motorcycle race that it hosts annually. One of the drawings in this set includes a map of the island. In another one, the yellow and blue refer to the two racing teams—one ascending, the other descending—in a competition that visualizes the organic process central to the entire CREMASTER cycle: the descent of the cremaster muscle that determines gender differentiation.
The text sets the work into its historical and cultural context as succinctly and expertly as any that have appeared at the Morgan, but that context only underscores the imagery’s insularity. The drawings’ neo-Beuysian, symmetrical and quasi-symmetrical scribbles and diagrams in graphite pencil, lacquer and petroleum jelly, which conflate emblems, anatomy and cartography, shed no light and very little heat.
Barney’s meanings ricochet off a stimulus rather than devour it: we are informed of the Isle of Man’s folklore, but his schematic abstractions offer no conceptual enticements to explore that realm (even Julian Schnabel’s “Jane Birkin” paintings, as ham-fisted as they are, made me want to find out who Jane Birkin is), nor do they incorporate it in a graphically arresting way.
Myth is both a vessel of meaning and a codifier of desires and taboos. The story of the House of Atreus is about the morality of revenge as well as the emergence of the rule of law; the legends of Achilles and Hercules are about the proximity of heroics, hubris and madness — to name just a few. Narratives such as theirs recur in a culture effectively only when they are used as drivers for contemporary preoccupations.
In contrast, Barney assembles networks of personally significant arcana (a practice manifested in the scrapbook-style collections of clippings, sketches, art objects and other items housed in the massive vitrines) that remain inanimate and unintelligible beneath his shimmering surfaces. The artworks are beautifully realized, but the viewer remains on the outside looking in.
Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 2.