Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney

Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 10 May – 2 September 2013

By Joseph Akel

Mattew Barney KHU: Five Points Make a Man, 2009, graphite on paper in polyethylene frame, 24 x 30 x 4cm. © the artist. Courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London, and Gladstone Gallery, New York & Brussels

It is fitting that Matthew Barney, an artist so enamoured with heady conflations of mythmaking and physiological mutation, should have a retrospective of his drawings across the way from an exhibition dedicated to one of the greatest tales of transfiguration around – the Holy Eucharist. Such matches are made in heaven, or in this case, at the Morgan Library. With over 70 drawings, a dozen vitrines and the remnants of an in situ performance piece, Barney’s Subliming Vessel offers a crash course in the artist’s accretive, utterly fabulist cosmology.

Rather than laying bare the threads that underlie his projects, Barney winds them all the more tightly in his self-fashioned web of mythos

While technically a retrospective, the exhibition eschews sequential presentation in favour of constellatory groupings, with pieces from Barney’s current ongoing project, the Ancient Egypt qua Norman Mailer-inspired River of Fundament (2007–), accounting for the majority of drawings included. Works in the show are further divided into two categories: vitrine-encased ‘storyboards’ of preparatory sketches; inspirational texts and collages related to Barney’s performances and films; and mounted, custom-framed drawings that represent spinoffs from the latter.

Intended to elucidate, the storyboards instead are nothing more than wunderkammern committed to Barney’s unrelenting creative purview, promulgating narratives that have come to define his works, such as bodily augmentation, unsavoury reproductive cycles, Freemasonry and, of course, biomechanical erotica, among others. As with the storyboard dedicated to Barney’s film Cremaster 2 (1999), press clippings of murderer Gary Gilmore sit alongside Mormon scripture, Houdini-related ephemera and the artist’s heavily annotated copy of Mailer’s epic Gilmore exposé, The Executioner’s Song (1979). And yet, rather than laying bare the threads that underlie his projects, Barney winds them all the more tightly in his self-fashioned web of mythos.

Several dozen drawings line the walls of the main gallery. Framed in Barney’s signature medium of self-lubricating petroleum, Drawing Restraint 7: Spin Track Manual: Kid (1993) evinces the artist’s interest in biomedical science. Milky white speculumlike retractors tug at the image’s border, exposing renderings of Barney’s recurring lozenge- and crossbar-shaped ‘field emblem’. His quasi-vanitas, Mirror Position (2006), depicts General MacArthur’s skeleton, with corncob pipe alight, contemplating its own reflection. Far from the abstract, gestural sketches of his earlier career, Barney’s morbid rendering of MacArthur falls somewhere between Albrecht Dürer and James Ensor. Elsewhere, River Rouge: Sulfuric Acid (2011) depicts a grotesque phallus ejaculating torrentially. Invoking the mammoth Ford automotive plant, Barney’s painted steel frame and use of sulphuric acid marries the industrial with the procreative.

Much as it was for the pharaohs with whom he is so currently taken, Barney is undoubtedly the centre of his universe – the myth of self- creation lies at the heart of his whole enterprise. This is nothing new for artists (think of Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol); however, just as a great story can fail when readers become aware that they’re reading, the fault with Barney’s myth is not the story he’s weaving but the fact that we’re aware he’s doing so.

This review originally appeared in the September 2013 issue