Subliming Vessel: Matthew Barney Drawings
The Morgan Library | May 10 — September 2
Biblotheque Nationale | October 8 — January 5
The following is neither a review nor exegesis of Matthew Barney’s exhibition of drawings. If anything, it is a reading.
A Possible Drawing
Sometimes a finger, a tool, perhaps graphite, is gagged or rubbed, pushed or pulled across a surface. A trace occurs. This trace is a record of energy spent and mime recorded. Hardware or residue: what’s left? A possible drawing: a nail in a wall, a footprint in the sand. Sometimes a drawing is palimpsestic in nature, becoming a history of itself. The cumulative record of acts committed or a sum of memories recalled. It’s been said that every time you use a memory you change it, and that the safest memories are in the minds of amnesiacs. But for non-amnesiacs we have stories, traces, and drawings.
—Roni Horn, Subliming Vessel Catalogue
What is a drawing but a trace left on an empty field? It is always an interruption, an intervention in space, or the result of an effort.
In this sense, drawing and sculpting are not creatures of opposition but like-minded actions inhabiting different ontological dimensions.
It is important to remember that in name and metaphysics Matthew Barney identifies as a sculptor—not a filmmaker, performance artist, or image maker. While he is all of these, it is through the disciplinary funnel of the sculptor that he extrudes, builds, carves, and transforms materials—character and narrative among them—into the many projects that form his corpus.
I think that in the strategies of football, in the pursuit of creating a hole or an opening in the defense, you produce drawings that become very beautiful.
—Matthew Barney, 1995
(Interview by Jerome Sans in
art press, 204, July-August 1995, p. 32)
In this quote, one learns something essential about what drawing is for the artist best known for sculptures, films, and performances. Drawing is both an abstraction (in the mind of the football quarterback, the position Barney played in college), a strategy (conceptual map), as well as a wholly physical gesture and action (creating a hole). Less representational than phenomenological, drawing is both a vehicle of action (verb) and an object of production (noun).
His first exhibition at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in SoHo in October 1991, Matthew Barney: 00, consisted of the physical consisted of the physical traces and remains of a videotaped climb (and the video of the climb itself) which Barney performed the night before across the walls and ceilings of the gallery, naked, outfitted with rock climbing gear. After it opened to the public, the act of entering the exhibition was therefore the entrance to a memory. While Subliming Vessel seems as far away from MILEHIGH Threshold as Barney’s dangling body was to his original audience, it too is a record, a memory, a true recollection of the various internal states that constitute the production of Barney’s gargantuan projects.
Steadily I’ve been using more drawing. I’m using drawing on the front end of a project in the same way I always have: to map the narrative and to storyboard. What has changed is that at the bottom of the inverted pyramid [as in weight lifting, which Barney uses to describe his artistic method] where drawing is the last process in this distillation. The drawing is the one thing I can do myself. Psychologically, it’s become a way of moving on, of clearing all the loose ends.
—Matthew Barney in conversation with Paul Holdengraber, NYPL May 21, 2013
The sense of being in the presence of remains is striking as one walks into the main room and is presented with a number of vitrines filled with specific objects, drawings, books, and photographs. These are Barney’s storyboards. Rather than drawing two-dimensional sequential images of action, he plans his projects via a strategy that is both three-dimensional and contiguous. As the flight across the ceiling of an empty gallery via the line of pitons and hand-holds could be described as both a drawing and sculpture, so here when preparing the “drawings” for his films he arranges the images and objects in space. Placed within the vitrines are selections from the Morgan Library and the Bibliotheque nationale de France chosen specifically for this exhibition. In other words, preparation is never complete: every time you use a memory, you change it.
On the walls surrounding the vitrines are various steel and plastic-framed graphite drawings executed with what has been described as a “nervous” or “old hand.” They are selections from Barney’s various projects going as far back as 1988. Some are diagrammatic with gaps of empty space, more geometric than narrative (“Chrysler Suite,”  from CREMASTER 3); others expose gently pointillist graphite creatures whose bodies blend with landscapes and objects placed on ships or the bodies of whales (“The Cabinet of General Douglas MacArthur,” 2006 and “Shikenen Sengu” 2006, “Predator,” 2006 from DRAWING RESTRAINT 9), or mutations of Egyptian gods and goddesses against the backdrop of industrial landscapes (“SEKHEM,” “Set and Horus,” 2009), and even the head and body of Norman Mailer transposed into a mythic tree trunk (“RIVER ROUGE: An American in Byblos,” 2011).
I always felt that the drawings were interior spaces—and the frames were like orifices, or openings into these interior space.
—Matthew Barney, Interview, 56
If in a way all these drawings are cumulative records of acts committed, (Roni Horn) the goal of the viewer is to follow those routes. The notorious difficulty of the “meaning” of Barney’s work is not all that bewildering if one attends to the evolution of themes and forms that spread in rhizomatic rhythms through the material and morphology of his production.
The Physical Unconscious
Drawing as a primarily physical activity as opposed to an essentially representational process has been one, if not the, abiding preoccupation of this obsessively fecund artist’s practice since his first DRAWING RESTRAINT made in 1987 while he was still in college. Subliming Vessel is not an exhibition of the DRAWING RESTRAINTS except for the room prepared just for this exhibition of Barney’s DRAWING RESTRAINT 20. The spindly, often dotted line and unusual combinations of forms, calls to mind the great psychoanalytic surrealism of Hans Bellmer and his lover Unica Zürn or Salvador Dali, George Grosz, and even Max Ernst. While no doubt there is a serious surrealist strain in all of Barney’s work, the truth is it is the physicality of drawing, more than the unleashing of his unconscious, that motivates his pencil. Or better, it is a physical unconscious that produces the forms and themes of his art. Drawing as he puts it is both rehearsal (before, as in preparation) and distillation (after, as a kind of meditation or reflection). It occurs at both ends of the process of production.
Graphite, Sulfur, Semen
Graphite, of course, the simple sharpened point of a pencil held in the hand: this is the material that the drawings are made of. But other materials appear, narrative threads connect and thicken the effect of the encounter. Take the RIVER ROUGE series: abstract hellish landscapes on red paper suggestive of putrid ocean horizons, heaving with oil spills, and smoldering clouds of sulfer dioxide made with brush and ink and the very sulfer and iron that constitute the very materiality of industrial culture. The connections are in the chemistry.
Let these drawings serve as a synecdoche for how to read Barney’s work. The Rouge Industrial Complex is the name of the sprawling integrated Detroit factory where, in 1928, Henry Ford founded the American automobile industry. Long understood as the epigon of American capitalism, the car industry in its operatic extremes of American utopia and dystopia is, if anything, the allegorical imperative of American identity. In 2010 Barney staged KHU act 3 of river fundament with a live audience of invited art world guests on the edge of this river and along the abandoned mills. In its most spectacular moment, the audience, huddled on a boat on the River Rouge, witnessed the reanimation of the alchemical power of the Industrial Era: the smelting of iron in an enormous forge. The molten liquid poured down and filled various pools and molds that emerged as sculptural objects for Barney’s 2011 DJED sculptures. The scrap metal of the green 1967 Chrysler Imperial of CREMASTER 3, which had been ripped to shreds by a huge stump grinder at a used-car dealership in Barney’s 2009 performance, was among the metals mixed in. Although Barney started River of Fundament in 2006, two years before the crash of 2008 (starring the bankruptcy of the car industry), the tale of America’s demise as a trip through the detritus of the Egyptian underworld cycled through the sphincter of Norman Mailer’s insane Ancient Evenings featuring three incarnations of the Chrysler automobile (1967 Chrysler Crown Imperial, 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, and a 2001 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor) is as good a way to tell the story as any other.
You see, sometimes a drawing is palimpsestic in nature, becoming a history of itself. The cumulative record of acts committed. The palimpsest just might be the best description of Barney’s aesthetic strategy. Certainly it is in the drawings which, if anything, are perpetual “becoming histories” that continue to expand the filmic and sculptural projects. Every gesture, image, and substance, is a cumulative record. Peel it back: biological body, automotive body, mythic body is something else. Follow. Connect. Accumulate experience. “REN: Pentastar Suite,” 2008: I do not just see inside an impossible body of delicately sketched intestine dripping from graphite to lapis lazuli but the Chrysler logo, embedded in the anus, dissolving—all body, river, Detroit, Egyptian blue.
Drawing, like narrative, is a way of making connections. The path of Barney’s dots is never obvious nor even visible. (“DRAWING RESTRAINT 17,” 2010; “KHU: Birth of Anubis,” 2011) Here we find a clue, an aesthetic motif, maybe even drive, in the light touch of his pencil. Whether narrative or not, all of Barney’s drawings are syntagmas in an endless sentence. A simpler way of saying this is Barney makes everything connect, even across projects that are in themselves discrete units. For instance, traces of Houdini appear in “OTTOshaft,” The Cremaster Cycle, and River of Fundament even though these are all different projects. Budapest (CREMASTER 5) was the birthplace of Erich Weiss and in Act 2 of River of Fundament, Sekhem, the character of the 1979 Pontiac Trans Am (the reincarnation of the 1967 Chrysler Imperial of CREMASTER 3) “leaps” off the very bridge in Detroit where Houdini executed his famous shackled jumps in the 1920s. How this relates to the drawings is through the dotted line that constitutes the fabric of his drawings. A dot suggests rather than claims direction, unlike a line that never breaks.
I’ve always envied the space of concentration other people find when they read. It’s not a space that I can easily access. But increasingly drawing has come to offer me this. (Matthew Barney, in conversation). Over the years, Matthew Barney has made a point of telling me he does not read, a statement I never knew quite how to take considering the density of references and research that goes into his projects. Just the two tomes of Mailer’s Executioner’s Song and Ancient Evenings (which took me as long to finish as Barney has been working on the River of Fundament) would seem to indicate he really didn’t mean it. His explanation: after starting from the beginning several times, he finally approached Ancient Evenings backwards.
Reading as Making
On display in separate vitrines are two seemingly quiet pieces both made in 2009: “ANCIENT EVENINGS: Ka Libretto,” and “ANCIENT EVENINGS: Ba Libretto.” Both consist of drawings made directly on the pages of paperback copies of Mailer’s Ancient Evenings and Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Sun Also Rises. Both rest on pedestals of carved salt. ANCIENT EVENINGS: Ba Libretto is opened to a densely underlined passage from Mailer’s novel covered with a gold leaf portrait of Mailer, suggestive of the tree Osiris becomes in the legend, coming forth from hereladic wings. “ANCIENT EVENINGS: Ka Libretto” places Mailer’s Ancient Evenings inside the natal cleft of Hemingway’s novels. Pen and ink portraits set within a sea of lapis lazuli portray both authors with eyes closed, suggestive of the sleep of the underworld. The epilogue of River of Fundament is filmed in the Idaho home where Ernest Hemingway committed suicide. The epic brawls of these great figures of literature easily align the dot matrix webs Barney draws between his characters and the bloody, incestuous extremes of Egyptian mythology, such as an epic fight set in a dry dock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard held between the son of Isis, Horus, and his troubled Uncle Set—jealous brother of Isis—as a crowd shouts: “Fuck Horus in the ass,” or “Shit on Set.”
But what is of most interest here is the fact that Barney places these books in his exhibition of drawings, as material—literally—cut and visually inscribed with his own mythic imagery. They appear almost as allegories for his own method of reading as a physical process of making, a kind of drawing, rather than a symbolic hermeneutics of digestion. The words are material not symbols. Narrative is not literary, but quite literally drawn.
One of the mediums, probably the only medium, Barney does not make art from is language. This makes sense for an artist whose entire corpus draws from physical intuition. Nonetheless, he is strikingly articulate. He never wastes a word, never decorates an answer, never just fills in empty space, choosing instead to remain silent until he has the exact phrase. If we were to characterize Barney’s language it would be as a diagram, not rhetoric. The grease of gears and bolts rather than combustion.
The Library for Non-Amnesiacs
In 1956 Alain Resnais made a documentary of the Bibliothèque nationale called Toute la memoire du monde. It is a document of its time, a moment when the whisper of the digitization of libraries and the subsequent transformation of language into a post-alphabetic, screen-based medium, had barely been mouthed. (Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think,” which introduced the concept of the Memex, was published in 1945.) The mobile camera of ur-cinema-auteur Resnais tracks through the archives and back rooms of the Bibliotheque nationale lamenting and celebrating simultaneously the essential fortress of memory that the library is for modern man. The film comes to mind as I walk through Barney’s show which does not take place in a museum but in two libraries. I think how Barney says drawing is his space of concentration analogous to reading.
A Possible Reading
And in the end this is what is so remarkable about his drawings: they are verbs and organisms that ask, but do not demand, to be read. A library for non-amnesiacs who track each trace, each story, each drawing.
ContributorThyrza Nichols Goodeve
Thyrza Nichols Goodeve is a writer, editor, artist, interviewer, and former ArtSeen editor for the Rail. She currently teaches several graduate programs at SVA.