Life, decay, and death mingle freely in Matthew Barney’s delicate and elaborate drawings currently on display in the exhibition Subliming Vessel, on view at The Morgan Library and Museum through September 2. A tree’s leaves bloom in iron; a man’s genitals sprout and grow into the ground; a man is half-devoured by a bear—or is the man half-bear? These are images of transformation. Nature, life, and bodies are in a state of constant flux, as beings and substance metamorphose, changing form, changing sex, changing species in a strange indeterminate biology.
Matthew Barney is an artist known primarily for his videos and performances, most famously his DRAWING RESTRAINT and CREMASTER film cycles combining ghastly creatures, sculpture, and colorful landscapes inspired by Barney’s autobiography, mythology, history, and sports. The Morgan’s retrospective of Barney’s drawing, however, is the first exhibition devoted solely to his work in this medium. In addition to drawings mounted on the walls, the exhibition includes six vitrines displaying photographs, clippings, and sketches that Barney amassed for his various video projects.
Dispersed among the ephemera are various medieval manuscripts and Old Master drawings Barney selected from the Morgan’s expansive collection for their thematic similarities to the drawings they accompany—satyrs frolicking and fighting, whale-hunting, the fusion of human beings and plant-life. In a separate room, Barney also reenacted one of his earliest performances, DRAWING RESTRAINT, for the exhibition. Here one finds a shaky charcoal diagram that Barney executed after lifting weights, as well as several objects, including a bound and filigreed manuscript, that underscore again the medieval resonances rife in Barney’s work.
In his drawings, Barney’s line is light and fragmented, almost indiscernible at times. One must peer closely just to begin to apprehend the intricate and frenetic compositions he renders in these small graphite marks. These images seem to quiver and shimmer, on the verge of fading. Just as one cannot decipher the many different layers of references—mythological, biological, sexual, autobiographical—to form a coherent narrative, to attempt to parse the hundreds of shimmering marks into discrete compositional layers is a futile visual task.
Each compositional form is simultaneously constitutive of another. In KHU: River Rouge (2009) Barney overlays a map of the Detroit River and its environs with two human forms. A female arches over the figure of a man, whose arms are tightly bound and whose head is shrouded. Star-like orbs rain down from her hair onto the taut male figure below. Yet, confronted with the image as a whole, it is impossible to discern which marks constitute geographical feature, man, woman, or star, to discern where human bodies end and bodies of water begin. A pencil mark is at once a shrub and star; a sinewy line is both river and human contour.
While the intricacy of the drawings is certainly impressive, at times the images seem to fade together. Hovering on the edge of disintegration, the images leave the eye nothing to hold on to; despite their detail, they seem somehow noncommittal. However, Barney’s effective use of different materials—anointing a pencil drawing with a viscous layer of Vaseline, or daubing fecal-brown watercolor to the orifices of a squatting satyr—helps to dispel this tonal monotony. Powdered lapis lazuli, oxidized iron powder, and flaked gold foil also serve as pictorial embellishments.
While The Morgan’s retrospective is devoted to Barney’s drawing practice, objects too hold an important place in the exhibition as vehicles of display. For each drawing Barney designed a unique frame cast in opaque plastics and acrylics, often in fleshy tones. Other drawings—those that Barney has done on black or red paper—are displayed in angular iron frames that he has painted to match exactly the color of the paper. Still others appear encased in imposing transparent plastic. These frames, alternatively flesh-like or rigid, work their own kind of transformation the images. In one vitrine, four prongs loop up from beneath a magazine and bind it to a plastic mount with Velcro, transforming the inert piece of ephemera into a strange artifact, something somehow sentient that must be restrained.
Barney’s materials are suggestive—globular and slick, they are reminiscent of bodily fluids or excrement. The frames, cast of acrylic, petroleum jelly, or plastic, also emphasize anatomical and clinical associations. The cloudy acrylics seem lipid-like, while the pale tones and neutered edges of the casts evoke the rubber sneakers and plastic bowls that accouter nurses on their rounds. Everything seems highly lubricated. A quotation in one of the exhibition texts articulates the biological innuendo Barney intended in his use of petroleum jelly: “The first pieces I made of Vaseline were about wanting to moisten something—I was thinking of all things that I was making at the time as literal extensions of my body somehow, and I wanted these objects to feel like they had just come out of me or could be put into me.”
It is easy to feel overwhelmed surrounded by so many rich and complex works, but Barney’s simpler and more abstract drawings like HYPERTROPHY (incline) (1991) or KHU: Djed (2011) offer relief. The meaning of these small drawings composed of one or two shapes is no less enigmatic than the larger, layered compositions. While these works partake in the same elusive system of symbols, their geometric compositions, articulated in bolder and more spontaneous lines and brighter colors, have a pleasing presence.
The result of Subliming Vessel’s thorough presentation of objects, vitrines, ephemera, and drawings is a very intense immersion in Barney’s practice. No matter if the drawings appeal to a viewer’s personal sensibility, what this show emphasizes is the remarkable breadth of Barney’s imagination and the rigor of his practice. As some critics have observed before, any attempt to decipher Barney’s complex allusions and constructed symbolical orders leads to exasperation, but the point is precisely this unintelligibility—to get lost in the total obscurity of his world.
–Chloé Wilcox, Bookstore Manager