Review of "The Cremaster Cycle"


      "The Cremaster Cycle"

      Matthew Barney

      The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

      Fifth Avenue NYC, NY

      Feb 21--June 11 2003


Review by Lee Klein



The over the well of and over the railing wall of the museum jumbotron conglomerate with the Mathew Barney "Cremaster" retrospective startles you at the summit improper at the Guggenheim showplace on Fifth Avenue. Here the ultimate art stadium of winds; ascents, and descents is (and maybe now at the time of your reading-was) given forth to spectacle legitimized by the invisible critical faculty (as to whomever the spectator horde becomes that day might begin to drool over the ledge to the scenes of punk mosh pits; Richard Serra slinging sculptural porridge, and paralympian champion Aimee Mullins reconfigured as a cheetah -all from the Cremaster three installment of the five film cycle around which the entire exhibit centers?)


For as long as I have been living in New York City there has been Matthew Barney or Matthew Barneys' videos (that is for this writer viewing this artists' artwork and films during a period of his existence extending from the 1993's dueling satyrs in the back of the limousines on television monitors at that year's Whitney Biennial to the traveling retrospective round up of the artist/filmakers' full five film Videos Cremaster cycle showcased here on "Museum Mile" a decade later in 2003).


Many names have been thrown in and around in comparison to Mr. Barney's work i.e., Jack Smith; Federico Fellini; and the aforementioned, Mr. Serra, etceteras. Then the question for us is that given that Barney is taking in part from all of them does his work register anew? I believe it does. Until he talks that is.


Here in Barney's magnum opus the point of departure is supposed to be firstly the way muscles of the human body build flesh anew (therein being that there is a process, which ensues, in the tearing away of old flesh in the order up of building the new). This qualified narrative has been echoed in the Barneys' cathartic film performances and scenarios is combined within the five "Cremaster" films with sculpture and choreography into a recipe for sort of a super image of how history and biology inter-wind to form both personal destiny and create societal flow.


All the while this rather willful theme is whirled through covalently with the very apparent text of gender identification. Subsequently, stirring the whole sloe-gin-fizz in your Guggenheim glass its' contents can be so strong that as you are walking around and around (if one somehow personifies this opus and then if related to ones' own internal film festivals if having maybe one is visiting or has visited the exhibit with their own carnal menu of caranalities' options in hand) that it can lead one right down the hatch into a biological-sexual super collision (Maybe of??. of bagpipers, police cadets, equine fetish and art photographers and Jeremy Irons and Evelyn Waugh -so that you might wind up taking it all out on Richard Serra for trying Ayn Rand out on us in the men's bathroom of Grand Central Station's Oyster Bar?).


So meanwhile in switching gears from the artistic to the political subtext artist Joseph Nechtival expressed to this writer at Willoughby Sharp's "Polarities" opening earlier the night of the Barney opening (orifices or parties or orifice parties ha! ha!) that there is a fascist overtone to the work. I really hadn't though about this on a conscious level before. However, as Barney was a Yale football player (Christian Vivenos-Faune suggested benchwarmer) and then male model (was Bruce Weber once trailing too close behind) the artist attributes his point of departure to physical training. This could all be seen as glorifying physical supremacy in a Leni Riefenstahl sort of a way. Then again that might be as Tribes very own Norman Douglas stated "too easy."


The work is visually stunning and individuated as per the contemporary canon. The use of the Guggenheims' space is superb. The dramatic agenda and the walk on the roles by an eclectic cast of superstars(Ursula Andress; Norman Mailer, Jim Otto, Al Davis, and the drummer from the rock band Slayer included) and the threading of narratives with a Robert Altman like sense of in and out allows the works to work on many levels (the least of which not being the role the object takes on as art and our obeisance to it under present contexts and or circumstances).


So doesn't anyone see the play on consumerism and planet Hollywood here (as props taken out of movies and resold as dining attraction or objets d'art and in Barneys' case conscious though as the placement and contextual engineering maybe)? And that furthermore those willing to pay twelve dollars to eat a cheeseburger next to Freddy Krueger's striped sweater and rapier claw are really not so different from the masses who fetishize art work laid out for us by museums?


Problem for this grand opus is that when Mr. Barney lectures or speaks to the exhibits curator Nancy Spector for her text as the main writer of the retrospective's cumbersome accompanying catalogue he explains away to the reader or viewer to great a majority of the work-as if in a seemingly late arriving libretto. So therefore the deflation to some extent airs out the highly organized mystery into an "and so this is what he means."


Taken, as art on pure originality Barneys' is a stunning achievement. However now as the "Cremaster" cycle has finished its revolution as spun into orbit by its' creator it cannot help but loose its power. One has retrieved the prize from the box the cracker jacks. After all does it just read as a prolonged albeit high budget adolescent male sex fantasy? Or is it not after all the repressive political response to repression known as political correctness now just letting the opposition back into the discussion (albeit in a mutated cartoon like format form the reverse nevertheless reversing itself but choosing the male side while you are supposedly not looking)?


Personally, I also think it should all be redone starring the villain crime master from Spiderman (the one who guilt tripped the green goblin and vice versa). Somebody else ought to be able to go Wagnerian with his or her sexual and gender identification fantasies. I personally want to set off for the Isle of Mann and race motorbikes with sidecars on the male-female identification circuit


Matthew Barney's work like Dennis Oppenheim's and David Reed's swims in the super-text, the mega-transect of all continuous texts; sub, con, primary, secondary, and so forth. However when one reads the exhibition catalogue or hears his explanation the literal rigidity with which Barney externalizes creative thoughts the mysteries of his work renders what seemed magical more rudimentary. As if it all were giant choreographed sesame street spelling bee production.


Anyway super collisions happen in the final Cremaster as Chrysler impalas play lobby demolition derby in the Chrysler building's ornate art deco foyer smashing one phantom auto which becomes a denture for the apprentice initiate later in the flick. Now as my sister's wedding approaches and becomes a vicious bar mitzvah redux I imagine my angry relatives from both sides of the ruined family driving these cars (just don't point them at me).


Finally it goes without saying that this opus is epic and as such the films within are really the products of many many creative people- or as as Mr.Barney might say or not say one evening when he reaches the podium at the Kodak Theater "too numerous to mention."