Subliming Vessel: Matthew Barney at the Morgan Library

Matthew Barney (Photo: Private collection, Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels)

The Cremaster by Matthew Barney, a five part film cycle, was shown repeatedly during a retrospective of Barney’s work at the Guggenheim Museum in 2003. I drove down from Boston three times to see it and dragged my friends, family and children with me. It was all encompassing, brilliantly provocative, enigmatic and so engaging.

In the words of curator Nancy Spector, Cremaster is a “self-enclosed aesthetic system.” It is chock full of thematic proclivities and Barneyesque tropes that get recycled in so many unexpected ways. Barney is a 21st century William Blake in his ability to construct a highly evolved cosmology that is conceptually big and fearlessly presented. That Guggenheim show was one of the most polarizing art events I remember in recent history, and everybody chose sides. Was he the most brilliant artist of his generation (my view) or is he, as my son contends, a talent who became grandiose and corrupted by money and fame?

No matter where you come out on Barney, it is hard to find another artist who moves so easily from the epic-scaled Cremaster to a small, intricately intimate body of drawings and artifacts. For me he stands strong at both ends of that spectrum. I find his work beguiling, no matter the size.

As art critic Holland Cotter pointed out in his review of the show, “The Morgan Library, with its Gospels, missals and reliquaries, is just the right place for ‘Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney,’ the first survey of graphic work by the most medievalizing of American contemporary artists.”

Medievalizing is a perfect word to capture Barney’s attraction to the arcane and the esoteric, to enigmatic symbols and symbologies, to the mystic belief systems of ancient Egypt and early Mormonism. In Cotter’s dismissive review (he is clearly not in my fan camp) he does capture this eccentric proclivity in the way Barney goes about his art making: “What he had going for him was an expansively hermetic sensibility. His actions and stories were deeply abstruse, but epic, apocalyptic. And this sense of the idiosyncratic promoted to the realm of myth is the strength of this drawings show.”

Subliming Vessel (what an evocative title with its suggestion of solidity moving into vapor) is appropriately positioned right next door to an exhibit about the Eucharist as portrayed in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. SV consists of over 100 drawings as well as “storyboards”—staged assemblages of items that revisit the narratives Barney has explored (or is still developing, such as his current project, The River of Fundament.) Each of these vitrines is a staged set of the myriad influences that brought Barney’s alternative realities into form. These curio cabinets are laid out meticulously and include open books that Barney picked for inclusion from the Morgan Library’s extensive collection of ancient texts.

I was so enthralled by the work that I spent most of my afternoon in the exhibit. For those artists and writers who cultivate the inexplicable, irritation can set in when their constructs feel forced or exploitative. While Barney’s work is definitely hermetic and highly personal in its iconography, the threads of meaning are there to unravel and explore.

Others feel differently about Barney’s accessibility, like Thomas Micchelli in Hyperallergic:

The drawings revolve around their own narrative logic, exhibiting a hermeticism that precludes the potential for communal experience or shared emotion…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.

Not my way of seeing it, but I understand that point of view.

(Photo: Courtesy of Morgan Library)

4 Replies to “Subliming Vessel: Matthew Barney at the Morgan Library”

  1. Off and on all day I’ve been thinking about how an oxymoron can also be a koan: expansively hermetic. It makes a beautiful sense of Barney. But I want to dig with that tool into a better sense of medieval hermeticism.

    Is the opposite of ‘expansive’ here ‘Christianity’? Meaning any dogma constrains one’s field of view. Or can you suggest another nuance it’d be useful to entertain?

    Thanks, Deb

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      What a brilliant comment Sloan. EXPANSIVELY HERMETIC. Great way to describe Barney’s work. And very koan-like.

      Barney digs into lots of different dogma but he isn’t held in by any of it. He’s a gleaner and a floater, drawing elements from absolutely every imaginable field of knowledge. Because I am familiar with many of the more arcane aspects of Mormonism that he is fascinated by (many of which are referenced obliquely in Cremaster) I often use that as a blueprint to track the way he acquires images, ideas, symbols, elements.

      Thanks Sloan. As always, your way of thinking and wording these mysteries is singular.

  2. Thanks, Deborah, for taking me deeper into an artist that, however prominent, had somehow escaped all but my/a rear-view mirror glance, my loss. I am drawn to the “Blake-ness” of what you offer visually here, and also what I spotted on google-images, etc. He also reminds me oddly of the back (cover) of the Prado triptych of Hieronymus Bosch’s so called “Garden of Early Delights” (really more applicable to the central panel).

    That is a stark, roiling black and white depiction– yes, more representational, of a late 15th century- imagining of an earlier “big bang.”! One that is much less familar than the front displayed heaven-earthly paradise-hell extravaganza.

    Your zest for this artist (3 trips Boston /NYC yet!) now makes me want to see more. I don’t want to draw the parallel with Bosch too far, but it seems, as you imply, that Barney’s striking “cosmology” and perhaps “out of time-ness” may find some parallel in Bosch. (The latter the guy who inspired my current trajectory to the Netherlands and Belgium, though I will not see the (un)Holy grail of the Prado garden triptych, surely one of the most “out-there” paintings ever conjured).

  3. oops, forgot to include link to Bosch, hope it works, don’t mind the URL, it just happens to be one of the clearer accessible images:

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