"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 30 May 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Crem Brulée



Even the kind of art lovers who take bus tours to massive, traveling Monet exhibitions know that, today, the key to art world success is taking off your clothes. And it sure doesn't hurt if you're in great shape — you were a high school quarterback who went to Yale on a football scholarship, say. And really good-looking, too — for instance, maybe you got your posing-around practice as a Gap model. That's the Matthew Barney story in a nutshell — which may be the word that best describes Barney's entire oeuvre. Barney, current darling of the international art world, recently stroked to risible effect in Harper's magazine, is the soft-spoken, Tommy Smothers-looking, mythopoeic Adonis of the Cremaster series of movies and installations. His masterpiece-in-progress takes its name, according to a press release from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (where the latest installment of Barney's opus, the $1.7 million Cremaster 2: The Drone's Exposition, is now showing) from the "muscle which controls the elevation of the testicles in response to such stimuli as fear and cold." In Barney's case, it's not so much that the emperor has no clothes as that the emperor has no pants.



Putting beeswax on your package and filming it can make you an art world star, sure. But to ascend to museum-quality art world superstardom, it takes more than the mountain of ponderous prose a little naked coed touch football — recontextualized, of course — can engender in Artforum month after month. What none of Barney's art mag exegetes has noticed is how completely his presentation of the Cremaster movies mirrors the way Hollywood blockbusters are sold to exhibitors and audiences alike. In fact, there's something distinctly LeRoy-Nieman-on-sale-in-the-lobby-of-the-multiplex about Barney's entire project.

At a recent press screening for Cremaster 2, SFMOMA director David Ross called the ephemera Barney surrounds his movies with "independent aesthetic entities." After viewing Barney's installation and visiting the museum's gift shop, it's clear that Barney's engaged in the same scam as the studios: creating promotional material that only realizes its true value as memorabilia. After all, the life-size cutouts, the posters, the books, the Director's Cut DVDs with fold-out sleeves, the auctioned-off props that eventually make their way to Planet Hollywood — they're independent aesthetic entities, too. What separates Barney's tie-ins from George Lucas's is only the one-time sale he makes to the Walker Art Center and SFMOMA for the time-share on his installations. In the case of his laserdiscs and books, the difference is nil: he's creating eBay fodder hard to distinguish from supplemental Titanic material or lobby displays of Mel Gibson in The Patriot. The paintings that line the SFMOMA screening room, separated from the movie they support, are only mediocre nature scenes that look like they've been rotoscoped. They're valueless apart from the Cremaster branding. The 3-D posterboards used to promote The Perfect Storm are installations, too — they just haven't made it into museums yet.



In fact, Barney's real breakthrough may be in showing the route by which insecure movie moguls can get the academic respectability they usually try to take by force. Why should licensed movie tie-in products be limited to the crass purpose of making money, when they could be pressed into service as art? The Austin Powers Talking Keychain, for example, with its implicit comment on the catchphrase culture of global capitalism, is more than ready for MOMA enshrinement — and not in one of those coy "mass produced art" shows either, but as a work of art in its own right.

Barney knows just as well as any studio marketing department that the movie itself isn't enough anymore — it's what you surround the movie with that counts. Unlike filmmakers who still four-wall their films in the kind of places where hot dogs and nachos are served, Barney's genius is that he's realized the actual release of his movies is unnecessary. The one way to ensure that you'll be taken seriously as a real film artist is not to release your films at all. Why suffer through a tedious series of interviews on Entertainment Tonight and in Entertainment Weekly when you can just call your films sculpture and sell your props to a museum? The art world hasn't noticed that one of Barney's pet terms — "self-lubricating" — is an exact description of the promotional process of a Hollywood blockbuster. Maybe that says more about the hermeticism of a group blind to realities apparent to anyone who's ever set foot in a cineplex than it does about Barney's ideas on gender differentiation. Museum curators and art reporters are always willing to grant that the problematic aspects of any artist's career are a form of parody (Many of the Harper's letters to the editor in response to Roger Hodge's rave review posited that Hodge himself was engaged in a Swiftian practical joke). In Matthew Barney's case the commentators' mouths have been shut by the slowed-down glam-metal video aspects of his productions. Few art critics wouldn't get all foggy-headed over hunks dressed as satyrs wrestling in the back of a limo.

The on-screen content of Cremaster 2 isn't all that far from your average blockbuster anyway. (That nobody seems to have noticed the way Barney's titles evoke Theater 16 attractions like A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master or Puppet Master 3: Toulon's Revenge merely shows how tone deaf art critics are to the lowbrow culture so many of them profess to love). Like most high-octane action fare, the photography in Barney's film makes everything look like a Harley-Davidson being caressed. The endless shot-from-a-helicopter landscapes are just like those in any Hollywood picture. Even if the ice fields and salt flats in Cremaster 2 are real, the way they're filmed drains them of all but the most prettified natural beauty — they may as well be computer generated. Barney's reproduction in miniature of the Mormon Tabernacle would do Tim Burton proud. When a credit at the end of a movie says "Shoes by Prada," how far, exactly, are we from the product-placement and endorsement deals that fuel any star vehicle? Every image in Cremaster 2 has the heaviness of a spacecraft landing. They prove without question that the money is on the screen.

Barney's Space:1999-meets-Cries and Whispers evocation of the Gary Gilmore story, as overly specific and ponderous as it is, pitches itself perfectly to art world professionals with short memories for mid-level pop culture items like made-for-cable movies with Tommy Lee Jones and Rosanna Arquette. His all-American El Topo, like most Hollywood blockbusters, is too polished to be any good, but if it were boiled down to three-and-a-half minutes it could make one of the best White Zombie videos ever. The critics who clamor to call the Cremaster series "Wagnerian" (as if that adjective hasn't been thrown around for the last two decades to describe every big-budget film made by every director who's ever gotten hot and bothered over Triumph of the Will) would do better to call Barney on the few inadequacies of the mise-en-scene of his installations. Why, for example, does he make viewers sit on the most uncomfortable (self-lubricating, allegedly) bleachers in the history of moviegoing to watch his new film, when he could've installed stadium seating? The football-cineplex connection would've made it all so clear.



Stephen Holden, in The New York Times, reviewed Cremaster 2 in the paper's film section, alongside the other new releases that week. His review, hot on the heels of a noticeably self-lubricating profile of Barney in the Times magazine the week before, at least had the sense to treat Barney's movie as a movie, even if there was a mirrored saddle on display in the lobby. If the Times would feature the x-treme auteur in the Sports section, too — rock climbing! rodeo! football! motorcycle racing! — Barney could wear the Triple Crown of American spectacle: a jewel each for art, entertainment, and professional athletics. Can we look forward to seeing Barney in his Spock ears on the cover of Sports Illustrated? We can only hope there's a Limited Edition Wheaties box in Barney's future that we can sell for some real money.

courtesy of Slotcar Hatebath
picturesTerry Colon

Slotcar Hatebath