Matthew Barney is considered by most American critics, at the top of the ongoing aesthetic research. Submerged in sculpture, performance, photography, drawing and film, he is an imagist talent with unconstrained creativity and visionarinesses. Expert on anatomy and mythology, athlete and dynamic artist, he has created body-centric works that explore the transcendence of physical restraints: a sort of aesthetic athleticism or athletic aestheticism, that uses athletic means for aesthetic ends.
His films are full of references to Bunuel, Kubrick, Lynch, classical art and sports iconography, historical, cultural and mythological events. They evolved around the idea that form cannot materialize or mutate unless it struggles against resistance in the process (an idea developed out of his personal experience as an athlete) and around his own theory of a three-level aesthetic system based on “Situation” (a phase of undefined potential energy), “Condition” (when energy is elaborated like a bolus) and “Production” zones (the result of transformation). Running alongside the key theme of superhuman physical ideal, is the conception of sports as contemporary rituals and competitions associated to masculine identity.
He has often been considered as a “depraved artist” because of the constant presence of explicit sexuality in his works. His sculptures, photos and drawings are the “framework” and “rubble” of his films. Barney is obsessed by unusual materials such as petroleum jelly (which makes statues that don’t melt down thanks to refrigerated systems), milky white silicone, syrupy fluids, metals and chromium plating.
Barney’s first artworks, Drawing Restraint series (1988-1993), analyzed the use of physical resistance in an attempt to create the fundamental component of drawing: a graphic mark which was both an index of the energy expended to complete it and a representational marking. His epic Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002) was described by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian as “one of the most imaginative and brilliant achievements in the history of avant-garde cinema”. A genital cosmogony in which the cremaster muscle is a metaphor for the process of sexual differentiation and the intrauterine life is an allegory of the strenuous fight to pass from an undifferentiated state of energy to a defined one. Consisting of five feature-length films, the series progress from a state of undifferentiated gender (a fully ascended cremaster muscle, represented by the floating Goodyear Blimps and other symbols), through the organism’s struggle to resist gender definition, to the inevitable point where maleness can no longer be denied (complete descent of the cremaster and release of the testes).
The cycle started in 1994 with Cremaster 4 and continued with the numbers 1 (1995), 5 (1997), 2 (1999) and 3 at the end (2002). If we analyze the number’s order (4,1,5,2,3), we can observe that the pentagon is a key figure: 4+1 and 2+3 is 5, and number 5 is in the middle (a reference to Aristotle’s five acts of tragedy). The style and characteristics of Cremaster are varied: it’s dynamic and analytic, with the structural presence of music and hardly dialogues; based on dreamy and surreal images with cold and distant framing that creates a sort of “static movement” like fashion photography. The iconography is multivalent and allusive; objects and images, always striking, bizarre and seductive, function simultaneously on various levels of meaning. Nancy Spector, on Guggenheim Museum’s catalogue about Matthew Barney, says that “the Cremaster cycle is a force field, an entity with its own energy and momentum that has evolved and expanded during the past eight years. Its creator, Matthew Barney, developed and nurtured this total work of art with passion, brilliance, great humour, and attention to detail that can only be described as fetishistic”.
Born in San Francisco in 1965, Barney moved to New York City, where he was introduced to the art scene and graduated from Yale University in 1989. With Cremaster cycle he won the Europa 2000 prize (1993) and the Hugo Boss Prize (1996), and it was exhibited in some of the most important museums of the world: Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of New York.