“I consider all the things I work with attractive to me. Whether they repulse me or not, I’m very, very attracted to them.” -Matthew Barney
“He’s a person who just wants to follow the imagination of his own work.” -Richard Serra
Ultimately, I feel Barney’s work is wasteful. I look at the resources he uses in his work and the first thing that comes to mind for me is, “What other uses could these materials be put toward?” A lot of this has to do with the sheer scale of his work. Sure, the wood we used to stretch a canvas can be a lot of things- but in this case I think there needs to be a sort of “bang-for-your-buck” mentality applied. A painting consumes so little but offers so much, whereas Barney’s petroleum jelly sculptures and giant-scale films like Drawing Restraint 9 consume so much-- not only in terms of material but space, as his pieces are generally quite large-- and offer back to the audience very little.
Having seen one of the petroleum jelly pieces at his show at MOMA several years ago... I was pretty underwhelmed and mostly annoyed, especially after watching an interview with him in which he described some of the most profound experiences of his life as being experiences he had playing football in high school. Again, this makes the work about him, his experiences, his imagination, and thus, of no interest to those of us experiencing his work. Ironically, this attitude is very reminiscent of the stereotypical self-absorbed attitude I encountered when I was in high school, not only in myself but also in my peers. What about the rest of humanity? Is his controversy about his life as a jock? If so, I’d rather see his work executed in Lotrimin or Tenactin. Perhaps, rather than standard canvas, he could repurpose used jock straps.
In his defense, Matthew Barney’s most recent installation in the Drawing Restraint series, Drawing Restraint 19, “...is part of a benefit art show and auction entitled Good Wood Exhibit , raising awareness and funds for a Do-It-Yourself skatepark project in Detroit, Michigan. It “...employs a skateboard as a drawing tool. A block of graphite is mounted beneath the skateboard deck, on the front end of the board. The skater performs a nose manual (a wheelie on the nose of the board, leaning in the direction of movement) across a smooth surface, tipping the nose of the board forward and leaving behind a drawn graphite line.”
So ultimately, my feeling on Matthew Barney is this: while his work can be visually striking, I find that the real interest for me comes from the people implementing his ideas. For example, his prosthetic artist, Gabe Bartalos, is clearly highly gifted. So, Matthew Barney is not only someone whose work is very resource heavy in terms of material; it is also very reliant on the work of others, including the skateboarder performing in Drawing Restraint 19. In closing, I feel Matthew Barney is a perfect fit for the art world that David Hickey has turned his back on-- Matthew Barney and his work could not be better described than as being “calcified by too much money, celebrity and self-reverence.” I think it was very apt for the producers of Art 21 to put Matthew Barney in the episode titled “Consumption.”