May 6, 2007
Matthew Barney: No Restraint
What struck me most when I attended the Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint exhibit in San Francisco last summer was how accessible the work suddenly became in the context of the museum. On the one hand there were the numerous parents walking through the galleries with children, talking to them about the installations, carrying handy brochures that offered helpful suggestions on how to decipher the seemingly impenetrable code of Barney's work; on the other, there were the sculptures themselves. Barney has always referred to his films as plans for scuplture, and that causal delineation suddenly becomes clear and logical and natural when you walk up to, around, through these immense plastinate biproducts of his creative process.
Barney himself is similarly illuminated in Alison Chernick's Matthew Barney: No Restraint, which was released to DVD this week. The documentary begins, appropriately enough, with a massive tanker of petroleum jelly pulling up outside Barney's studio in Brooklyn for a dry-run of the vaseline casting that will be performed on the whaling ship in Drawing Restraint 9. The liquid goo is pumped up the stairs, through the door, into a giant mold of that signature field emblem, and all the while Barney explains how the substance relates to the themes of the films, both culturally, biologically and geographically. He sounds like he knows exactly what he's talking about until, at a certain point, he shakes his head and laughs. "I know more about this than I think I want to know; I just want to fill this mold with vaseline!"
The production of Drawing Restraint 9 provides the film its overriding structure, and from it Chernick platforms off into Barney's entire oveure (those who haven't had a chance to see The Cremaster Cycle or Drawing Restraint series will get to see quite a bit of footage from both here), tracing it back to his days as a college football player and male model, and then forward again, to the decks of the Nisshin Maru, where Japanese sailors express amused bewilderment at the starring role in this bizarre epic. Their confusion escalates, predictably, when they actually see the film, and though they give the film a lot of entertainment mileage, Chernick is very careful never to laugh at them. They represent after all, in a way, her own audience.
And Barney, it turns out, is a friendly guy with a sense of humor. He doesn't take himself quite so seriously as he takes his work, and what's great about this documentary is that it brings him down to earth while leaving his art in whatever stratosphere of phyisogenic process it exists in. Chernick doesn't try to demystify what Barney makes, but she does seek to understand where he's coming from, and in doing so she reveals him not so much as a gatekeeper of his own ideas as a conduit to them.
Posted by David Lowery at May 6, 2007 3:19 AM