Another artist that’s been in my mind lately is Matthew Barney. When he came on the scene his work changed the game and expanded the conversation. Any thoughtful artist had to take this work as a real challenge. And this work was so strong that for a while it pushed painting off the walls. In the 1993 Biennial Matthew’s work exploded in the imaginations of our downtown culture. The AIDs crisis, the economy in the tank, stasis in the cultural scene, the New World Order, the end of the Cold War – this confluence of events was the launching pad for Matthew’s wild and byzantine work.
“In 1991, the body as a subject was a smoking battleground, not an arena for sport, as Barney was conceiving of it. (One of the first works on view in the exhibition is a drawing titled Stadium, in which the artist entwines architecture and innards, his field emblems dancing alongside a phallus.) The AIDS crisis and the subsequent homophobic backlash meant that the body was under attack, not only by the virus, but also by the self-appointed virtuous. The year before, the grant monies of the “NEA Four” had been vetoed, the artists’ works called out and cast aside for their unabashed sexuality. Politically and culturally — then as now — there were very clear lines drawn between the bodies that mattered and those that didn’t…
Barney’s body was shamelessly that of the winner, of the all-American male. He was exceptionally handsome and fit. He went to Yale, played football, and modeled to make ends meet. By all accounting, his was a body that mattered, so what could or should it articulate at this moment in time? For Barney, it seems the answer in part was to dive into the myths of masculinity, to pry open the male psyche (inherited as well as imposed), to rewrite its fantasies, to rewire and reimagine its systems, and to create his own worlds at the end of an empire. As artist/creator, Barney both lionized and broke down the male body, rescaling it, placing it in a constant, looping state of becoming and unbecoming itself.” [Jennifer Krasinski on Matthew Barney]
BLVR: The body—your body, specifically—is a huge part of your work. Have you ever thought about what happens when you get older and are perhaps unable to exert yourself as much as you do now and have in the past? Will you adapt the work? OK, hopefully this won’t be for a while. [Laughs]
MB: I think it’s probably not that far off. [Laughs] I feel like that’s already in the work, but it doesn’t tend to be expressed through the characters I play. Often the characters I play are connecting spaces through some sort of movement under resistance. I think the larger form often confesses to some sort of entropy, though that could just as easily be expressed by my own decay. [Laughs] This past summer, I performed a piece in San Francisco that I was more worried about than any of the other endurance actions. It’s called Drawing Restraint 14 and was a climb up and under the skywalk in SFMOMA, which is five floors high over the lobby floor, ending with a wall drawing under the oculus. I used a straightforward hand-over-hand technique; I trained on the sprinkler pipes here in the studio, but the pipes under the skywalk at the museum were significantly fatter. This required more hand strength, and made the climb much more difficult. So with this one, I felt the limits of my strength. It might be a pretty feeble-looking drawing. [Matthew Barney in conversation with Brandon Stosuy]
LUCAS: I’ve noticed, visiting your house, that you’re not very concerned with the trappings of the art world: having a nice house or a well-displayed art collection or any chi-chi stuff that people reward themselves with and pump themselves up with. Your parties, when you have them, tend to have the spirit of a bunch of cowboys ’round a campfire.
BARNEY: That’s funny. I’m always hoping that something will happen in a social situation; maybe the mosh pit days destroyed my ability to sit passively and enjoy something. I like that kind of community purging. When we have parties in the studio, there usually ends up being a physical event at the center of it. We made a huge slide out of all the plastic offcuts for a Christmas party one year. You were at the one more recently where we made a bucking bull from a miscast part of a sculpture, suspended from some rope. In a situation like that, it’s true that people tend to stand in a circle around the object. It’s maybe more of a ritual than a party, but it’s fun. The way you throw eggs at the wall at some of your exhibitions feels that way to me—that it might be a collective purging as much as it is an art-making decision. [Sarah Lucas in Conversation with Matthew Barney]
Been having an email conversation with the wonderful artist George Hofmann. My thinking of late has been bleak – don’t like how we’ve tied our social and political lives to the outcomes of our economy, nor do I care for the fact that governments have been passing edicts and laws that might never be taken back. We’ve turned over so many of our freedoms – in order to be “safe” – to men and women who may not have our best interests at heart. Been feeling like this may be the first real defining moment of the 21st Century, and it will create a new kind of societal / political existence. Basically, it’s complicated, and there’s no point in boring you – after all Siri and Alexa are listening… George has been fairly adamant that things may be tough, but we’ll get through this. And he sent these quotes from a conversation that we had online here on Henri regarding the future of painting.
The Irish poet Seamus Heaney said:
“Imaginative arts are practically useless, but they verify our singularity, they strike and stake out the core of self which lies at the base of every individuated life.”
In commenting on this, the linguist Helen Vendler wrote:
“Singularity and individuated life are those qualities indispensable (but not sufficient) for indentifiable style. There have been singular and individuated selves who never created. But without a singular and individuated moral self there has never been a singular and individuated style.
The creative self does not have to be virtuous in the ordinary sense of the word, but it does have to be extraordinarily virtuous in its aesthetic moves. It must refuse – against the claims of fatigue, charm, popularity, money and so on – the received idea, the imprecise, the tired rhythm, the replication of past effects, the uninvestigated passage.
It is this heroic virtue in the realm of aesthetic behavior that courses in the Arts exist to teach. Human testimony is not uninteresting in itself, but it does not convey the morality of the imaginative effort toward aesthetic embodiment. That morality is almost unimaginably exhausting.”