Matthew Barney at Sadie Coles HQ

illustration by Iguanodon

What on this jilted earth is a ‘self-lubricating picture frame’?

Whatever they are, Matthew Barney has them in his most recent show. There is also a bit of Vaseline in the downstairs – so you can say you’ve seen it. Barney is well known for the stadium-sized scale and complex symbolism of the six feature-length films (Cremaster 1 through 5 and Drawing Restraint 9) that have made him one of the international art world’s most prominent names.  His images are widely-reproduced and proliferate on the covers of surveys on contemporary art. Barney shows infrequently in New York and his last UK exhibition took place at the Serpentine Gallery in 2007 in support of ‘Drawing Restraint 9’.

This show takes place at Sadie Coles HQ , a building incognito in between dealers of reproduction Baroque furniture on South Audesley street. This is the wealthy West London gallery district and the clean and lonely streets are making me feel as if I have just wandered into the pages of American Psycho. Every handsome businessman I pass on his way to a working lunch is a potential Patrick Bateman.

Once I have reached the safety of the gallery and acclimatised to the caution and fragility of the environment, I dare to creep closer to the first of nine waist-high, glass table vitrines containing small .jpeg printouts, car hood ornaments and hand scribbled notes. I am excited for this rare hotline to Barney’s very celebrated imagination.  And it looks a bit like this:

Molten material

Ford logo                        map of Lake Eerie

Bird in flight.

This new show consists of materials from Barneys collaborative work with the composer Johnathan Bepler. Barney has turned to Ancient Egypt to mine its famous death rituals. His main inspiration is Norman Mailer’s ‘Ancient Evenings’ (a copy of which lies in one of the vitrines), which seems to be an ‘erotically charged’, stream-of-consciousness historical novel published in 1983, which succeeds in frightening off most would-be readers by huffing through the finish line at 30,000 words. customer reviews pit “graphic and absorbing tale of Ancient Egyptian life” against “typical orientalist fantasy fluff”. Otherwise, the internet has been almost silent on the subject of ‘Ancient Evenings’.

For me, the major hook of Barney as an artist is that he is trying to capture the magic in engineering and labour. He is imaginatively stuck on the vast processes needed to manipulate raw materials. What he has continuously, impressively, beautifully and mystifyingly dwelled upon is energy, or in human terms life force.  In this light, the Cremaster cycle could be looked up as a creation myth that incorporates the imagery of actual history and reality. One very ‘useful’ thing that an artist can do is to re-present scientific history in a more accurate light.  A diagram of an Egyptian battery is enlightening, so I crudely copy it into my notebook. A quick Google search once at home reveals ancient wall designs depicting this potentially Edison-trashing Egyptian light bulb. Or is it the proverbial snake in a really big vase?

The most charming objects in the vitrines are a couple of Chrysler toys: magnetised and covered in ‘growths’ of iron filings. Iron filings are such a perfect Barney conceit. Something that is man-made, man instigated, the romantic patterns of which look organic, in fact, are ancient in their adherence to invisible paths and laws.

Considering all of this, it is surprising therefore that none of his work was on show at the Gagosian’s current exposition on how Ballard’s ‘sex+technology=the future’ formula has spawned many artist philosophers trying to live up to the thrilling cruelty of his original vision. As obsessed as Barney is using built and organic structures to illustrate his narratives of process, it is quite bizarre that his work has been omitted. In Cremaster 3, Barney introduced the Chrysler as a semaphore in his vast biological opera. Pyramids become bodies too. Their claustrophobic passages do look a bit like digestive tracts.

The new drawings unfortunately disappoint.  Pale and slightly wan in their glorious, self-lubricating picture frames (which look a bit like the smooth pastel frames around bathroom mirrors) they remind me of William Blake in terms of their spirit and mad style but without the same utter conviction. Spidery, feint graphite and ink work creating giants and obscene monsters out of undulating line – like a supine horse-head man enthusiastically creating an arch of piss. With thorough inspections, these creatures of horror do correspond to the research presented in the glass cabinets. They also glitter with a cloying preciousness, all of them needlessly tarted-up in gold leaf and lapis lazuli shades. On second inspection, these figures are tied down like Gulliver into the landscapes of big American geology, which becomes interesting. But maybe these themes are too vast to be wrestled to the ground? Too thrilling, frightening and mad-making to make much sense to the casual viewer.

Here’s a very belated Valentine’s greetings from me with an image of Barney and his wife Bjork in the film Drawing Restraint 9.


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