A few weeks ago, my cousin Katie invited me to join her on a visit to Matthew Barney’s Long Island City studio. I’d just opened an exhibit at Aucocisco, completed an intensive teaching gig in the new NHIA MFA program, and this opportunity seemed the perfect culmination of a busy month. Barney is epic presence in contemporary art, and I’m drawn to some of his persistent themes: mythology and narratives of transformation, exploration of the tensions between structure and freedom, and the integration of physical exertion and creative process. Also, I was eager to see what kind of space he works in.
The morning of the event, I woke up early to do an out-and-back run over the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ve been taking it pretty easy since the 10-mile McDowell Mountain Frenzy in early December—giving myself recovery time and focusing on a busy work schedule. Now I’m beginning to build back up to the 5-6 hours (35 miles) of running per week that I’d established in the fall.
After the run, I walked over to AlMar to meet my colleague and friend, painter Craig Stockwell. Craig is in the middle of a residency with the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation and it’s inspiring to visit him in that environment. His abstract paintings are as thoughtful as always, and now they’re infused with play and contradiction. The work takes itself less seriously, which, to my eye, invests it with a fresh depth and complexity. Over eggs and coffee, we talked about the shifts in his work and my recent show. I’d been pondering Dan Kany’s thoughtful review of my work in an attempt to narrow in on key questions that I want take back to the studio. One such question has to do with the reflective nature of the paintings. They document a physical experience–navigating and running difficult terrain–in a narrative language that doesn’t mimic the physicality of the subject or inspiration. They map an experience rather than express it. I’m not sure where this understanding will take me, but it was inspiring to narrow in on it in dialogue with Craig.
Pondering the relationship of physicality to creative work, and questioning the monumental gesture, set a perfect context for heading to Long Island City with Katie. Matthew Barney’s studio is in a huge warehouse across the east river. After exploring the neighborhood a bit, we entered the studio through large industrial doors. The afternoon began with a short reception, to be followed by a preview of Barney’s film, River of Fundament (the film will premier at BAM on February 12 -16). We were a bit early and so we wandered through expansive workshops to find the bathroom. The bathroom was a bit like walking into a dada collage, so I lingered and took some shots.
We made our way back to the reception, where Katie introduced me to Matthew. We chatted for a few minutes as people milled around finding seats and getting coffee. I had that mental pause that comes when trying to assimilate the physical presence of someone whose visage is familiar from the media. Noted: he’s remarkably present, self possessed, a bit shy, has small ears and celebrity teeth, and is significantly handsome and impish.
Barney’s new work is a multi-media project drawn loosely from Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel, Ancient Evenings. The work combines the narrative of Mailer’s death with themes from the novel: sex, death, and reincarnation from Egyptian mythology. The two main protagonists are Mailer (the ghost of Mailer) and a Chrysler Crown Imperial. Barney shared that Mailer, shortly before his actual death, suggested that Barney work with Ancient Evenings. The two had collaborated previously and Barney decided to take the project on in spite of having mixed feelings about the novel. He was drawn to the challenge of a subject rich with contradictions–drawn to the seduction and repulsion of both Mailer and his work. As the audience gathered for two short clips from the 5 1/2 hour film, Barney shrugged and gave Katie and me a shy glance.
“Nervous?” I asked.
“…a perpetual state,” he said with a smile, and headed to front of the room to introduce River of Fundament. As the film began to roll, he walked to the back and stood partially concealed, arms around a pillar, watching the audience watching the film.
The first scene begins with the cast–including Paul Giamatti, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Ellen Burstyn–sitting at a banquet table and milling about the brownstone apartment (a replica of Mailer’s actual Brooklyn brownstone). The set is arranged for Mailer’s wake and is thick with tension. The music, composed by Barney’s partner in the project, Jonathan Bepler, underscores the discomfort. The clips reveal a film where porn, horror, opera, and art meet in equal parts. By the second clip, the banquet feast has decomposed into maggot and mold covered remains. Ghosts begin to haunt, and the room is filled with compartments of action: a close up view of a woman, in an acrobatic pose, pissing on the banquet table; an awkward erection slipping out of slacks under the table; and extended, graphic views of a man performing analingus on a woman on the floor.
The tension in the audience built as the film progressed and became an integral (and I think intentional) part of the experience. The tired pose of “I’m a knowledgeable art viewer absorbing something cutting edge” rammed up against “I’m really uncomfortable watching porn with my neighbors from Brooklyn Heights.”
After the film clips, we walked to the largest in a string of connected warehouses where Barney spoke a bit about the work and answered questions. The place is an industry, and there were groups of assistants working throughout. We meandered through the space, viewing what I interpreted as artifacts from the film work.
Barney clarified, stating that for him, the pieces serve as independent sculptures as well as artifacts. They are distillations of narrative, and all aspects of the work are integrated. We wandered throughout the room, looking at the upside-down framing of Mailer’s house, and what looked like a lead cast of its interior. The second protagonist of the film was present in the form of an altered chassis of a Chrysler (above), in one of its seven stages of reincarnation–Egyptian mythology and American auto mythology combined. My favorites, in terms of stand alone sculpture, were two monumental rectangles, one made of sulfer and one of salt. The latter reminded me of wandering into cow pastures in Northern VT as a child, lapping the rust colored salt licks with my friend Susan. In spite of the abundance of conceptual framing in Barney’s work, in this case there are multiple points of access outside of the artist’s particular narrative.
Barney’s work is extravagant. It’s rough and highly produced, expensive and demanding, and sometimes irresistible, at least in excerpted form. He presents a monumental puzzle—a puzzle with a tremendous amount of capital investment. The visit to his studio shifted my thinking about Barney and his work. I feel more connected to it and less dismissive of the excess. Excess is the point. The work is a workout; Barney refers to it that way himself. I’m guessing that the point is not entertain with the 5 ½ hour River of Fundament; rather, the point is to push–to create an endurance activity in which desire and disgust, boredom, excitement, and discomfort are forced to chafe against one another until they create an experience for those who can make it through—it’s Durational Work. I’m not sure if I’ll see the full film or not, but I feel some satisfaction in beginning to understand what his work asks of the viewer—how it is intended to reflect the endurance and restraint he asks of himself. And there are worse ways to focus our economy than on an army of young artist fabricators. I’m still most drawn to the work of the hand, but my understanding of what’s possible with excess has deepened.
I was due to leave New York before sunrise the next morning, in order to make it back to Maine for a road race. My brain was on high charge and I was barely able to sleep. I lay in bed listening to city dump trucks and crunching away on all that I’d seen that day. I rose at 5:30 and hit the road. In spite of some winter weather in CT, I pulled into Old Orchard Beach in time for Jimmy the Greek’s Frozen 4-Miler. It was cold and windy and I was exhausted, but since I’d run the race 2 years in a row, I was determined not to miss it. The race was rough, and I ended up heaving over the side of a police car after crossing the finish line in 32:07. I placed 3rd out of 72 women in my age group, and given that I’m on the high end of the 40-49 spread, I’m feel alright about the finish. After the post-race party of pizza and IPA, I was ready to bring the journey to a close.