Mythology, Mortality, Mailer, and Vaseline: Matthew Barney at the Morgan
Subliming Vessel: Matthew Barney at the Morgan Library & Museum
May 10 to September 2, 2013
225 Madison Avenue
New York City, (212) 685-0008
Visitors to the Morgan Library & Museum this summer will glimpse more than two decades worth of drawings and small works related to Matthew Barney’s better known performance and video projects. Subliming Vessel inserts Barney’s manic cross-referencing machine into a library overflowing with cultural treasures. “What am I looking at?” two older visitors queried as we stared at RIVER ROUGE: Djed (2011), a study for Barney’s current performance and video project River of Fundament. Knowing Barney’s work I blurted out “body parts.” The gathering of potbellied forms in this pen drawing on red paper reminded me of similar ones in a Max Ernst collage that, on closer inspection, were illustrations of guts lifted from a medical text. Barney’s pear-shaped pots also resemble blast furnaces, and in fact the drawing serves as an instruction for a performance in which the artist had actual molten steel poured from furnaces in a revived Detroit steel plant. Though the title Fundament might be related to the Latin word fundere, to melt or pour, fundament in English is actually the buttocks or anus. A pithy answer to the couple’s question would have been: “the armpit—sorry, asshole—of America bleeding hot metal.”
The adjacent Djed: The Case for Saving Detroit (2010) is a glass vitrine in the middle of the room. It contains one of J. Pierpont Morgan’s votive figures of the Egyptian god Osiris, along with a bundle of Time magazines with the 2008 cover story The Case for Saving Detroit. Osiris is the deity associated with the regeneration of the soul, but the god’s likeness does not quite touch the electrical wires strung around the magazines—suggesting that Detroit’s resurrection is not imminent. Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings (1983), about a trip through the Egyptian afterlife, is both message and medium in these works, with two actual copies appearing in the work Ancient Evenings: Ba Libretto (2009). The books lay open in a pair of vitrines, their pages covered with drawings, adorned with gold leaf and embedded in salt. Most impressive are the cases themselves, made of clear acrylic framed by gray nylon and fastened with screws whose heads are flush with the edges. Attention to such details is evident throughout the show, with every part in dialogue with its neighbors and with the overall context of the library. Barney drew RIVER ROUGE: Djed on red paper and framed it in red steel. Red-toned paper feels right at home in an institution that shows toned-paper drawings from centuries ago; so too do Barney’s cases, which mimic library conservation and display techniques.
The entire exhibition, in fact, feels like a maelstrom of references and counter references: River Rouge refers to the river Nile, Osiris’s province. Osiris appears in Mailer’s book, which appears in Barney’s display cases, which appear in a library full of cases. The cases’ industrial edging connects to the industry of Detroit, and Detroit’s resurrection (or lack thereof) parallels that of the Egyptian soul which takes place on the Nile.
A black arc on the gallery wall reminds the viewer that Barney’s latest performance of Drawing Restraint also took place here. The restraining force here was a large barbell which the artist charged with a paste of charcoal dust and Vaseline, then rolled over the wall in semi-circular fashion. Barney bisects his arc with gridlines that mark the way-stations of the Egyptian afterlife, but also mark the accomplishment of his weight-training goals. This approach circles back to the artist’s early performances in the Yale gymnasium, which situate the intimacy of personal toil within the cold calculation of sport’s science. It shows up in early drawings such as HYPERTROPHY: Incline (1991), in which a curved line of graphite and Vaseline meanders across a Cartesian grid, apparently to show cell enlargement from a vigorous workout. Barney’s heartfelt investigation of bodily experience and love of the physical universe hold out the promise of solid ground in the work. Too often that hope is lost in a funnel cloud of sacred and profane oddities.