Mr. Big Stuff

Matthew Barney lives large through his sprawling, spectacular art. Do we follow?

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America is unquestionably the land of the large. We well realize that gigantic things generate a sense of awe — along with danger — as it currently applies to presidential hubris and supersized snacks. It's no accident that the artists who work biggest are United States residents — not to mention men: Think of James Turrell, who transformed a crater in the Arizona desert into a massive temple to natural light; Richard Serra, whose hefty steel sculptures have blocked public plazas and famously crashed through a gallery floor; Christo, whose canvases are world landmarks and entire states; and even Jeff Koons, who effectively inflated a topiary puppy to the size of a mountain. They may have international reputations (and a few peers in other countries), but there is something undeniably American in the desire to realize dreams that large. The trick is to translate that sense of awe into something more than size envy.
Matthew Barney is perhaps the first contemporary artist to translate the idea of that monumental impulse to the media age. His latest venture, "Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint," which opens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this week (look for a review in these pages soon), is a sizable, career-spanning project. Like most of his work, it involves a feature-length film, and objects and images that relate to a self-invented universe, one filled with references to the human body, landscapes, and landmarks. Perhaps, as some critics have suggested, Barney's work extends the enveloping nature of film into three-dimensional space, or synthesizes various art forms into a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk — that total, epic extravaganza of a term that's frequently attached to Barney. Whatever it’s called, it feels like something major.
Barney’s Drawing Restraint series — which comprises performances, videos, a feature film, and drawings — is rooted in the idea of struggle, transformation, and creation. The pieces in the ongoing series reflect the artist's changing means — the earliest of them were done with Barney attempting to make drawings on the wall while shackled with rubber tethers or jumping on a trampoline and inscribing a self-portrait on the ceiling. Drawing Restraint 14, which was recently executed at SFMOMA, involved the artist scaling the building's tubular skylight and drawing on the curved wall. Drawing Restraint 9, as has been widely reported, costars Barney's real-life partner Björk, was filmed on a large Japanese whaling ship and employed the full crew as extras (a primary theme of the film is Barney's identity as an occidental — read: American — in an inscrutable Japanese culture), and was realized on a budget of nearly $5 million.
That seems an attractive sum for an artist to be working with, but not when you compare it to the costs of this country's greatest cultural exports — Hollywood movies — or even the price of an impressionist painting at auction. It definitely pales before Damien Hirst's recently publicized bid to make the priciest work of art ever: a diamond-encrusted skull costing some $18.8 million. If Barney could raise those kinds of funds, most likely he'd have little trouble taking his vision to a next level, be it with CGI effects or with greater amounts of his signature material, petroleum jelly.
The SFMOMA exhibition involved casting 1,600 gallons of the stuff, a relatively small amount in Barney terms, in a rectangular mold — a process that was slowed by clogged hoses and a minor rupture on the museum steps. As he did at the Guggenheim with his 2003 Cremaster Cycle exhibition, Barney easily occupies a good chunk of the museum. The show covers the whole of the fourth floor, which has, for the first time, most of its walls removed. The now-vast galleries house a few whale-sized sculptures, all illuminated with hundreds of industrial-looking lightbulbs installed by Barney's crew.

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