For a sequence of The Cremaster Cycle, a series of five films created over the past decade, Matthew Barney transformed the Guggenheim Museum into an amphitheater in which a figure in a wildly orange headdress undergoes a succession of trials. His situation recalls that of the ancient heroes on a quest, but his world also shimmers with Pop. He must climb the rings of the labyrinthine museum, solve visual riddles, lovingly battle a sphinxlike woman who changes shape, pass through a shouting punk band, and confront a trollish man who stalks the top ramp hurling heated Vaseline. A bloody rag hangs from his mouth. Astroturf, colored a too-blue blue, carpets the ground floor. At first, the surpassing strangeness may provoke a knowing smile, as if this were just another jokey postmodern meditation on kitsch. On second impression, it becomes clear that Barney is that braver thing—a modern visionary.
Barney could be the reincarnation of a shaman: His art has the otherworldly clarity of a trance. In a trance, the imagination can travel freely where it wishes, turning up truths obscured by a pedestrian reality. It can find a symbol in every object, a moral in every action. Everything connects. Past and future become present, without beginning or end. Not surprisingly, Barney’s remaking of the Guggenheim—which has largely been retained for the current show—has metaphorical implications. Gone, for the moment, is Frank Lloyd Wright’s pure meditative spiral; gone, too, is the rarefied air of modern art. Instead, Barney brings into the temple powerful feelings, memories, and forms that have largely left art—such as a love for allegory, symbols, and storytelling. Of course, he is hardly the only one who would like to awaken the ancient vitality of art. But few with this ambition make work that does not somehow seem dated. Barney is attracting so much interest because he appears irreducibly contemporary—while tapping art’s grander traditions.
Five different movies make up The Cremaster Cycle. Their conceptual starting point is the embryonic moment of sexual differentiation—that tensile instant when a human being is not yet the prisoner of gender and the world is open-ended. (The cremaster is the male muscle that controls testicular contractions.) From this beginning, Barney then explores five degrees of differentiation in the successive cycle of films, creating numerous visionary sequences that embody the trials and aspirations of the spirit struggling with its fleshy condition. With the shaman’s power to possess, Barney appropriates various iconic narratives and objects—such as the gangster movie, the Chrysler Building, the bull-riding at a rodeo. Barney himself writes and directs the films; he also acts various parts. At the Guggenheim, the successive degrees of differentiation are presented on the ever-rising ramp, beginning with Cremaster 1. In addition to the actual films, projected on small screens within the show, Barney’s sculptures—which contain elements from the films and attempt to distill their themes—fill the bays and passages. Hanging high in the open space of the Guggenheim is something that resembles the Jumbotron in Madison Square Garden; it shows the Guggenheim sequence on several screens.
It’s impossible in a brief space to describe the intricate, ever-changing play of meaning in The Cremaster Cycle. However, the organizers of the show—led by Nancy Spector—have conscientiously laid out its densely woven iconography. (Initiates will want to own the catalogue.) No less important than the literal play of meaning, however, is the work’s fabulist aura. Our familiar world becomes newly strange. He has based his narrative cycle upon the principal obsession of contemporary culture—gender and its discontents. And he uses his own body in his work, which reflects our period’s narcissistic preoccupations. But Barney is also a pagan with a baroque love of excess. He makes contemporary versions of satyrs and sphinxes. You have never before seen—and you will never forget—the eerily white flesh, animal ears, and red hair of certain Barney figures. Or the mythical man-creature whose genitals are tied to ribbons that are borne away by birds. Or the beautiful amputee with two glassy, high-heeled legs.
Barney’s art has a kind of rococo artificiality—he loves powders and pastels—that’s theatrical rather than false. He does not seek a Hollywood verismo, for example, in the way he makes up bodies. That would put too much emphasis on the factual. In his hands, the artificiality edges us away from reality toward the miraculous. Even his androgynous beings are often robust: They seem either before (as in the pagan past) or after (as in the otherworldly future) our use of such terms as effeminate. Barney’s colors appear distilled from American pop culture. But they are not like the surface of a new car, cool and affectless. Barney breathes heat into the American palette. He does something similar with American materials. He is a master of plastics, but not the plastic of the old cliché about authenticity (“Plastics!” the phony tells Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate). Barney uses something called self-lubricating plastic. It seems to sweat slightly. It has a kind of sheen. It invites the touch of the hand, as does the Vaseline he favors as a sculptural material. There is a fetishlike joy in his gift of life to the inanimate.
Critics have a difficult time placing Barney. He calls himself a sculptor. But he most resembles those artists in whatever medium who are driven to create an alternate universe. (William Blake stands at the head of this line.) A recent instance is the German visionary and utopian Joseph Beuys, who also breathed life into eccentric materials. There is something of the half-mad, primitive, and self-taught about such artists, whatever their degree of training or sophistication. When you consider such art, a sensation of doubt is natural, largely because mythic systems are usually the work of cultures, not idiosyncratic individuals. A certain pathos is also present, since these parallel worlds remind us that Western culture can no longer offer artists the sustenance of great, commonly held systems of myth and religion. But the fire in such worlds is warming.