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December 1999, Volume 2, Number 3



The baroque qualities of Matthew Barney's Cremaster 2--make it nauseating to view. Exquisitely padded costumes, metallic beaded saddle, the hinted at stories of Gary Gilmore, Harry Houdini, Norman Mailer, the Mormon Church and its Tabernacle Choir, the Ford Mustang, the Bonneville Flats: excessively iconic, decadently impotent. Everything seems close, closed off from air, even the faux National Geographic shots of Mount Timpanogas and the Wasatch front, seem contained and offer no relief from interiors that stifle. The slow moving glaciers absorb a kind of nervousness, albeit a fidgetiness tamped down to a mannered movement. Spiraling forms repeat dizzyingly throughout in the shape of the beehive, in the "sculpture" made inside the Mustang, in the parade of horses and buffaloes, in the salt enclosure built on the Bonneville Flats, in the rodeo death bull ride, in the precise dance of the couple in the perfect enclosure of the circular, gilded room, their soft (animal) looking pointed cowboy boots touching the floor in perfect synchrony.

It's all so choreographed. I feel ill watching the young couple kneel at an altar before an older woman--there is incest (or insects) between these three, all touching under the table. It's secret and feels like an initiation into an adolescent or repressive (American?) code of dirty sex.

It is worse than garbage, as Fred Camper, suggests--not at all like rummaging through the day's cast-off debris in one's trash can, open envelopes, discarded junk and coffee grounds. There's comfort there, and the stuff of a modernist aesthetic--as Kurt Schwitter's showed in his collages of candy wrappers and other detritus swept up in front of his studio. Barney's vision isn't modern: it's wet and dark and fetid. It's the sickness I like, the excess of controlled spiraling forms, the sticky and shiny surfaces of a body, or a body of water so laden with salt a human body floats differently in it. Robert Smithson's spiral jetty kept coming to mind, with its recent emergence from the Salt Lake after years of not being visible. The monumentality of that work signals a kind of hubris for me, as does the grandiosity of Barney's Cremaster series. But Barney isn't a conceptual artist trying to call into question the space of the gallery as the space for art--or is he? He is certainly not a film maker at all--so to compare him to the brilliant Ford, Sirk, Welles, or Brakhage isn't the proper touchstone. The pace of Cremaster 2 isn't the pace of film, but of the eye contemplating a painting. Maybe the proper touchstones are interior decorating, high-end fashion, pornography, or advertising--low forms which make up the perceptual fields we live in. Barney does make me ill, but it's not because I'm yearning for great modern art.
Debra Parr


I love my hometown but as an art critic I have to admit to a tinge of apple envy this week when two New York art events converged in my mind's eye. The first was when I opened this month's issue of Art in America and read "Mary Boone Jailed in Art Raid" about how the art dealer was arrested in September for showing the work of Tom Sachs which included homemade firearms and complimentary live bullets set out like candy in a glass dish at the reception desk for viewers to take home. Not coincidentally the raid took place the day before the preview of "Sensation." Boone was jailed for 26 hours, faces up to a year in jail and a $2,000. 00 fine and in a headline writer's wet dream was quoted as saying "I'm an art dealer not an arms dealer."

The other event was the arrival in the mail of photos of Nina Levy's new sculpture at I-20 Gallery in Chelsea which show a life-size body cast of the artist, nude, holding her own over-sized, detached head up at arm's length like a basketball player about to sink a three point shot. The piece is installed on the roof deck of the gallery building so that its backdrop is the entire Manhattan skyline.

This dual vision, of a naked artist, albeit her effigy, about to pitch her own head overboard into downtown Manhattan and one of the most successful art dealers in the world being led out of her gallery in handcuffs for showing the work of a provocative artist really struck me.

Of course Boone wasn't looking to get arrested and feels sure the raid was just another ploy of Guiliani's to attract conservative voters. But the fact that he bothers to pick on artists, dealers and museums is somehow perversely touching, touching in that he and or his advisers assume that people care enough about art to make it worthwhile for him to mess with it for political purposes. Likewise, Levy's piece reflects an uncommon engagement with place. The violence or ecstasy of the gesture of ripping your own head off and throwing it off the roof of a tall building is presented in the context of the city where it happens for all to see. Indeed, rather than constructing something intended to be viewed in a sterile white box gallery here, there or anywhere, Levy has swept all of Manhattan into her composition.

I guess what struck me about these two events is that both reflect a kind of passion, a level of engagement and an assumption of the importance of art and art-making to everybody that is downright invigorating. Obviously I don't condone police harassment of galleries. But what caught my attention in both these cases, especially in the wake of the "Sensation" sensation, is what appears to be the absolute agreement by very diverse and even warring parties of the importance of art to the real life of the city. I'd like to see more of that here.
Margaret Hawkins


A colleague of mine asked me if the Barney film Cremaster 2 was weird. Unfortunately, it wasn't weird enough. What I expected from Barney was something akin to the strangeness I first experienced with his Drawing Restraint 7 that was exhibited at the now infamous 93 Whitney Biennial.

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