Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Matthew Barney in San Francisco

September 18, 2006

My recent weekend in San Francisco kicked off with a visit to the exhibit Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint at SFMOMA. This was the closing weekend of this retrospective of all 13 projects in the series Barney has completed to date including objects from his most recent film release Drawing Restraint 9 and a new work completed specifically for SFMOMA, Drawing Restraint 14.

Flensing the Occidental Guest, 2005 Matthew Barney. Photo: Keizo Kioku

Of course Barney has made a career so far out of these large-scale multi-media installations and projects. Much like the The Cremaster Cycle exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2003, the Drawing Restraint series, though much smaller in scope, can be overwhelming. Barney trades in a complicated series of symbols, images, and themes repeated over and over whose meaning often seems elusive. As usual, much attention is paid to how these works are produced. Barney, a former athlete, is particularly interested in the physical aspects of creating his work and the parallels between athleticism and artistic production. These issues are again on display here amidst the large gelatinous white structures and luminous video screens.

But what few comment on, and what interests me more, is the emotional content of and response to the work. I have found many of the Drawing Restraint 9 objects quite moving. There is a certain sense of inevitability about it all as the process of development and eventual dissolution is played out over and over. Seeing the great sprawl of the giant collapsed gel-like field symbol makes me think about the trade-offs we make in entering into communities, relationships, and other organized states. There is always something lost from a more “primitive” state in achieving a more organized and functional one. Or thinking of it another way, Barney’s work is the artistic high-art equivalent of the satisfaction that comes from popping bubble wrap. Seeing the unpopped wrap gets under your skin and the release from the anxiety by actually popping it is both enjoyable and destructive in a way.

Barney’s best work may be yet to come. With his interests in the development/decay process and the role of athleticism and physicality in artistic production, what lies ahead as he himself age? What happens when the body can no longer respond in the intended way in the production process? Questions that will be very interesting if Barney chooses to address them over the course of his own career.

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