“What does it all mean?” a fellow visitor to the Morgan asked her companion during my weekend visit to the Madison Avenue library and museum. She was playing right into my hands, as I was looking to test this theory I have: if you stand around something created by Matthew Barney long enough, somebody will inevitably ask some sort of variation on that same question. Sure, art should provoke that sort of response from people, but there’s just something about Barney that makes it all the more visceral.
I heard something similar to the question when I was watching a portion of The Cremaster Cycle on a screen at MoMA PS1 a few years ago, as a high school-aged girl giggled and asked me if I had any clue what was going on. A year or so later as I viewed Barney’s installation Cremaster 5: The Ehrich Weiss Suite (1997) at the Jewish Museum as part of the Houdini: Art and Magic exhibition, a tiny old lady stood next to me shaking her head and mumbling, “Disgusting.” These are the kinds of reactions I’ve come to expect from paying attention to people looking at Matthew Barney’s work. While I should be concentrating on the art itself, sometimes the reactions of strangers help to enhance the experience of seeing something unique and brilliant.
Matthew Barney, Ren: Headgasket, 2008
Subliming Vessel, which is on display now until September 2nd at The Morgan, is the first museum exhibition devoted to Barney’s works on paper, and also brings together a selection of Barney’s storyboards for his films and short videos — composed of his own sketches, photographs, newspaper and magazine clippings, and books. Located directly across from the exhibit Illuminating Faith: The Eucharist in Medieval Life and Art in the grand building that was built as J.P. Morgan’s private library, Barney’s work might seem a tad bit out of place to the uninitiated, as it references everything from the evils of capitalism and Ernest Hemingway’s suicide to religions, cults, and other mythology, but that surprising juxtaposition makes it all the better.
Matthew Barney, Tsusumu, 2006