Monday, April 15, 2013

Matthew Barney: Sculptor, filmmaker, and artist

       Matthew Barney is an interesting artist. When I say "interesting," I mean that many of his works are very ambiguous and thought-provoking, inspiring viewers to analyze the work beyond what they see. Barney has taken both positive and negative criticism for his works, but he is considered by many to be among the best artists in avant-garde filmmaking. I will give a brief biography on Barney's life before discussing his two major exhibition series, Cremaster Cycle and Drawing Restraint.

              Birth, Early Life, and Start of Career

       Barney was born March 25, 1967 in San Francisco, California. His parents divorced when he was 12, and he lived in Boise, Idaho at the time. In high school, he was on the football team and wrestling team. Barney's artistic career began when he was picked up for a modelling career that helped him pay for college. His time as a model influenced many of his later works.
       When Barney left Boise to attend Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, his original plan was to go through premed school to become a plastic surgeon. Two semesters in, however, Barney decided to go through the art department. His creativity and originality were quickly recognized, and he was allowed to participate in the graduate portion of the art department as an undergraduate.
         Barney's first production was titled Field Dressing, which appears to be footage of him swinging on chains hanging from the ceiling. Like his time as a model, the film would inspire his most popular works.

             Cremaster Cycle

       The cremaster muscle is a muscle around the testes that contracts or relaxes in order to raise or lower them to regulate temperature. I myself am unable to draw any conclusion as to why Barney would give his five feature-length films that title. The films, each of which can be viewed on YouTube, each feature a variety of barely describable imaginative scenes that are incapable of being explained. One has to watch the films to understand what I mean. All I could find on the meaning of the Cremaster Cycle films was this: Barney created five films to represent the descension of the cremaster muscle to its lowest state (when it is hot), with Cremaster Cycle #5 being the lowest in this case. A parallel to the descension that I read about was the development of an idea, and Cremaster #5 is the final resolution of that idea. Interestingly, however, I read that Barney filmed each Cremaster Cycle based on where he had lived previously: Cremaster #1 was filmed in Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho. Cremaster #2 was filmed elsewhere in Idaho where Barney visited often as a child. Cremaster #3 was filmed in New York, where Barney currently resides. In that sense, one could argue that the Cremaster series as a whole is at least partially an autobiography of sorts for Barney. 

       The only other relevant piece of meaning I could find was a symbol that Barney called the "Field Emblem." Said symbol appears throughout the Cremaster Cycle. Apparently, the Field Emblem's simple symmetry is supposed to represent a state of equilibrium, while the Half Field Emblem is supposed to represent when one side has dominated the other. I suppose that it could refer to the male and female opposites of sexuality when I put it together with the ascension and descension of the cremaster muscle, because the cremaster muscle also ascends during arousal and intercourse, to prevent injury to the testes. Interpret that as you will. Nevertheless, Barney invested quite a bit of time in the Cremaster project, taking nine years (1994-2002) to film and publish all five films. 

            Drawing Restraint 

        The prevailing idea behind athletic training is that training with resistance will force the body to build itself up into something stronger. Barney took this idea and ran with it throughout his works in the Drawing Restraint Series, of which he has made nineteen so far. After enough digging around, I found an interesting set of ideas that appear to drive Drawing Restraint: Situation, Condition, and Production. Situation is represented as the initial unconditioned energy, Condition works to give that unconditioned energy a form, and Production is the final piece created by a combination of the energy and the conditioning that gives it direction. Barney goes as far as to compare this cycle to the human digestive system, with the mouth, stomach, and anus respectively. Much like the Cremaster Cycle, the Drawing Restraint series has to be seen to understand it better. Right now, unfortunately, only Drawing Restraint 9 can be found on YouTube, and even then it is only in fragmented form.

            Matthew Barney Today

          Barney's works have been featured in several exhibits throughout Europe and America, including the Guggenheim and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, just to name two. Currently, he lives in Brooklyn Heights, New York, with his wife Bjork and daughter Isadora. Bjork has a career as a singer of similar prominence, and collaborated with Barney in Drawing Restraint 9. Barney's latest work is Drawing Restraint 19, which involved him putting a piece of graphite on the bottom of a skateboard and skating it around a small skate park.

Matthew Barney (right), and Bjork (left).
         For more information and videos on Drawing Restraint 19, visit

         For a more detailed biography of Matthew Barney's life, visit

         For a synopsis of the Cremaster Cycle series with links to the individual films, visit

         For a synopsis of the Drawing Restraint series, visit

         For a biography on Bjork, visit 

         As always, feel free to do your own research, and watch the Cremaster Cycle films on YouTube, as well.

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