Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of MATTHEW BARNEYby Ann McCoy
The Morgan Library | May 10 – September 2, 2013
Subliming Vessel is the first major exhibition devoted to Matthew Barney’s drawings. “Vessel” references the alchemist’s flask, a container for the incubation of images and processes rooted in the unconscious. Alchemical plates show flasks containing strange creatures part lion, part toad, as well as divine infants and peacocks. Barney’s drawings depict mythological beings, hybrid mutants (General Douglas MacArthur as part corpse, part fish), and anthropomorphized creatures like whales (“Predator,”2006). It is the “Subliming” part of the title that seems to be a misnomer. Sublimation implies transformation to a higher spiritual and evolutionary state. Barney’s “Djed: The Case for Saving Detroit” (2010) is made of cast iron, a base metal, and references little of the agricultural, or spiritual renewal associated with this tree of Osiris. We wonder if Barney’s inert skeletal Osiris (“KHU: Isis and Osiris,” 2009) will make it through the EGYPTIAN BOOK OF THE DEAD’s hours of the night to be reborn.
Case 5, in the Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery, contains “Djed: The Case for Saving Detroit” (2010), in which a cord connects a 26th-Dynasty votive statue of Osiris from the Morgan’s collection to a stack of bound and gilded Time magazines. The piece relies heavily on this umbilical tether to a great Egyptian sculpture. Surrounding small Egyptian-themed drawings continue the theme of Barney’s five-part opera, River of Fundament. The related barbell drawing is part of his endless Drawing Restraint series, begun at Yale in 1987. While we are glad Barney can lift four Olympic barbell plates as he pushes fifty, the viewer longs for a break from the athleticism, and the wall notations referencing Egyptian mythology seem strained. Carolee Schneeman’s “Up To and Including Her Limits”(1973-1976)was more poetic, and Schneemann knew when to quit. We would hate to see Barney joining his bare-chested alter egos Hemingway and Mailer in oldster macho land.
The exhibition leans on display, storyboard clippings, and the Morgan’s manuscripts as support for the drawings. Overpowering plastic frames, some “self lubricating,” form heavy buttresses for the fragile, rather tentative drawings. Barney’s argument (however sexy) that making frames of prosthetic material allowed the orifice “to open wider so one could see deeper into this internal space” is not convincing. If the frames were removed and the drawings reproduced in a book, like Joseph Beuys’s The Secret Block for a Secret Person in Ireland (1974), Barney’s drawings would not hold up with the same magic, spontaneity, and luminosity. It seems odd that Iron Man Barney can’t exert more pressure on a pencil lead.
Barney’s drawings capture little of the vitality and Baroque splendor of his films. Compared to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s sketches for The Holy Mountain (1973) or Guillermo del Toro’s diary drawings for Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Barney’s “meditations” are pale afterthoughts and feel precious. His creative process begins with the storyboard clippings arranged in the cases, more than with the drawings, although Barney says the latter have become primary in the last several years. “KHU: Birth of Anubis”(2011) has the most vitality of any drawing in the exhibition, with a macabre D & C performed on a splayed goddess. The viewer prays that actor Aimee Mullins, Barney’s Isis on an engine block, will not be flayed in the next film.
The exhibition certainly references Barney versus Beuys—as have Nancy Spector, Christian Scheidemann, and others, in seemingly endless comparisons—petroleum jelly versus the liquid gold of honey, for example. The Adonis Barney, fresh from Yale, scaled the walls of Barbara Gladstone’s gallery with athletic prowess in 1991 and has been flying high, well funded and celebrated, ever since. Beuys crashed in flight, had an agonizing breakdown and hospitalization, and was transformed from puer aeternus to elder. It is this transformative factor of depth through suffering that formal comparison of Barney and Beuys omits. Yet it shows in the works and is a rare currency that can’t be faked. Beuys’s works spring from a deep well of spirituality, while Barney’s stay on the surface. Barney’s drawings don’t evoke an emotional response in the viewer, which suggests a problematic lack of Eros and differentiated feeling.
A tiny drawing made with sulphur on red paper, “RIVER ROUGE: Raising of Djed”(2011), shows the dark side of that dual symbol. Sulphur, often identified with the god Mercury, represents the active principle of the alchemical Great Work. For Barney, sulphur dioxide is a toxic gas released by Henry Ford’s River Rouge Complex. Beuys’s Dionysian honey has morphed into Barney’s industrial petroleum jelly, Beuys’s Eurasian Staff into Barney’s Greenman masturbating against a mechanized drive shaft. The drawings and the storyboards, for this viewer, fail to take us into the promised lands of Shinto, Candomblé, and the new eco-consciousness that Barney promises. His fragile drawings do not reference the massive spectacle of his films and instead stay stuck in the flask with the mutant creature. We are left to wait for the promise of the Ibis, which lies dead on a postcard in a case, to summon Thoth.
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ANN MCCOY is an artist and writer who lectures in the Yale School of Drama.