Matthew Barney

© 2017 Matthew Barney

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In 1991, Matthew Barney exploded onto the New York art scene with all the force of his often insanely physical videos. Just eight years later, a New York Times article dared to crown him "the most important artist of his generation." The occasion was the release of "Cremaster," one of a cycle of five films named after the “thermometer” muscles that retract the testicles when things get chilly.
It’s hard to say just what kind of artist Matthew Barney is. Born in San Francisco but raised in Boise, Idaho (where the first scene of "Cremaster” is set), Barney grew up as the all-American guy, attending Yale on a football scholarship. He even capitalized on his good looks, paying his way through school by modeling.

Though Ivy League football seems to have little to do with Barney’s work, it’s actually quite relevant in its insistence on absurd masculinity. His New York gallery debut consisted of nudity, sporting equipment greased with Vaseline, and spelunking. Visitors to the opening of his show were greeted with videos of a naked Barney climbing the gallery walls -- plus the jellied footprints left behind to prove it.

Beginning in 1994, Barney embarked on his defining work, the first of the “Cremaster” series (which was actually entitled “Cremaster 4”). It was an ambitious hybridization of video and film, each one-hour piece including fantastic sculptures, photographs, and drawings. Barney spent about $1 million of his own money on each installment of the series, earning it back through the sale of sculptures that were used as props in the films, as well as books and installations derived from them. He claims that the sculptures -- a weight bench made of petroleum jelly, dumbbells made of tapioca -- are just as important as the videos they appear in.

Barney’s films are wordless and packed with cryptic, relentlessly cross-referencing, often autobiographical symbols. Obsessed with sexual biology ("Blind Perineum," his first video, takes its title from the tissue between the anus and the genitals), the films tackle subjects such as gender, obsession, transformation, and longing. Barney's detractors characterize him as a sensationalist or Johnny-come-lately Surrealist. Barney calls himself an abstract artist. His supporters call him a man of expansive imagination, who turns the materials of his own experience into a metaphor for artistic creation.

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