Matthew Barney

° 1967, San Francisco (US) – lives and works in New York (US)

Matthew makes work that fuses sculptural installations with performance art and video. His singular vision foregrounds the physical rigors of sport and its erotic undercurrents to explore the limits of the body and sexuality. In this way, the artist’s work reflects his own past as an athlete, while also being attuned to a new politics of the body evident in the work of many contemporary artists. Barney’s ritualistic actions unfold in hybridized spaces that at once evoke a training camp and medical-research laboratory, equipped as they are with wrestling mats and blocking sleds, sternal retractors and speculums, and a range of props often cast in, or coated with, viscous substances such as wax, tapioca, and petroleum jelly.

Barney’s exploration of the body draws upon an athletic model of development, in which growth occurs only through restraint: the muscle encounters resistance, becomes engorged and is broken down, and in healing becomes stronger. This triangulated relationship between desire, discipline, and productivity provides the basis for Barney’s meditation on sexual difference. These athletic and sexual references converge in Otto’s jersey number “00,” which becomes a leitmotif for the artist’s ongoing exploration of a polymorphous sexuality. Woven cipherlike throughout Barney’s work, this motif intermittently appears as if marking elapsed time in his videos, and in altered form as a single oblong shape, resembling a football field. Barney notes, however, the oblong represents “the orifice and its closure—or the body and its self-imposed restraint.” Homonymic with the word “auto,” Otto also suggests autoeroticism, or a closed, self-sufficient system.

Matthew Barney
Matthew Barney as the Loughton Candidate from Cremaster 4,1995 (Photo by Michael James O’brien)

Barney began work on the CREMASTER cycle in 1994. Eschewing chronological order, he first produced CREMASTER 4 (1994), followed by CREMASTER 1 (1995), CREMASTER 5 (1997), CREMASTER 2 (1999), and CREMASTER 3 (2002). Along with each feature-length CREMASTER film, which Barney wrote and directed, and in which he often played one or more roles, the artist created related sculptures, drawings, and photographs. This epic cycle has as its conceptual departure point the male cremaster muscle, which controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli. The project is rife with anatomical allusions to the position of the reproductive organs during the embryonic process of sexual differentiation: CREMASTER 1 represents the most “ascended” (or undifferentiated) state, CREMASTER 5 the most “descended” (or differentiated). The cycle repeatedly returns to those moments during sexual development in which the outcome of the process is still unknown—in Barney’s metaphoric universe, these moments represent a condition of pure potentiality. As the cycle evolved over eight years, Barney looked beyond biology as a way to explore the creation of form, employing narrative models from other realms, such as biography, mythology, and geology.

In subsequent work Barney continued to expand upon the materials and motifs explored in the CREMASTER series. His sculptural work, like Chrysler Imperial (2002) and The Deportment of the Host (2006), utilizes the same self-lubricating plastic Barney employs to frame his drawings and which consistently appears in the CREMASTER films. His ongoing Drawing Restraint series, begun while Barney was still a student in 1987, took as its point of departure the biochemical principle of hypertrophy, or how muscles develop in response to increasing resistance. For Drawing Restraint 9: Shiomenawa (2005) Barney contemplated his strained role as “Occidental Guest” when invited to create an exhibition at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan. For Drawing Restraint 11 (2005), also conceived for Kanazawa, Barney returned to the root of the conceived project and climbed the gallery wall, thus fighting increasing resistance, to create a series of escalating drawings.

In 2007 Barney began The River of Fundament in collaboration with composer Jonathan Bepler. The final film presents the pair’s experimental opera, each act of which was performed only once in separate locations over a five-year period. Taking Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings (1983) as a point of departure, the work combines characters from the novel and Barney’s own CREMASTER 3 to create a hyper-sexualized and scatological vision of death, Egyptian mythology, and the history of the United States car industry.

(courtesy of Guggenheim Collection)


Matthew Barney had numerous solo exhibitions, including shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Haus der Kunst, Munich; Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna; the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. His work has been shown in several group exhibitions at venues such as Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Vanhaerents Art Collection, Brussels; MoMA PS1, New York; Guggenheim Bilbao, Bilbao, Spain. Matthew Barney has received numerous awards including the Aperto prize at the 1993 Venice Biennale and the 1996 Hugo Boss Award.

Matthew Barney is represented by the following galleries;
click through to discover more of her work.

Sadie Coles HQ, London

Gladstone Gallery, Brussels / New York

Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Or discover more of Matthew Barney’s work on his own website.

works by Matthew Barney

Matthew Barney - De Lama Lamina - 2004

Matthew Barney

De Lama Lamina

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