Matthew Barney, American (1967 - )

Matthew Barney was born March 25, 1967, in San Francisco. In 1989, he graduated from Yale University, New Haven. Since then, he has created work that fuses sculptural installations with Performance [more] 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, 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 hybrid spaces that evoke at once 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. Indeed, his earliest works, created at Yale, were staged at the university’s athletic complex. Within this alternative universe, Barney’s protagonists—including an actor dressed as Oakland Raider Jim Otto, and the artist himself naked or cross-dressed—engage in a metaphoric dance of sexual differentiation.

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 variously appears as if marking elapsed time in his videos, and in altered form as a single oblong, resembling a football field. For the artist, 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.

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 writes and directs, and in which he often plays one or more roles, the artist has 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 1991, at the age of 24, Barney was honored with a solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, organized a solo exhibition of his work that toured Europe throughout 1995 and 1996. Barney has been included in many international exhibitions, such as Documenta in Kassel in 1992, the 1993 and 1995 Biennial exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and Aperto ’93 of the 48th Venice Biennale, for which he was awarded the Europa 2000 Prize. Barney has been awarded numerous other prestigious awards, including the Guggenheim Museum’s Hugo Boss Prize 1996; the Skowhegan Medal for Combined Media in 1999; the James D. Phelan Art Award in Video by the Bay Area Video Coalition in 2000; and the Irish Museum of Modern Art Glen Dimplex Artists Award in 2001. Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle, an exhibition of artwork from the entire cycle organized by the Guggenheim Museum, premiered at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne in June 2002 and subsequently traveled to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

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