Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint

Artvehicle 25/Review

20th September 2007 — 11th November 2007

Drawing Restraint is sexy and brute.

In the first room is a double bank of 10 monitors above 2 vitrines showing early and recent filmed Drawing Restraints, on the walls are drawings and photos. Matthew Barney bouncing on a tiny trampoline struggling to mark a gallery/studio ceiling with black graphite or up a pole squished against the wall. Rubbing white chalk on his hands or carefully binding his feet. In the 2 acrylic vitrines are stacked drawings rendered in graphite, vomit, fish blood etc - all remnants of previous Drawing Restraints.

So, this show is a kind of retrospective of the Drawing Restraint series (there are 16 now; number 16 - a new and unseen performance/restraint - took place in the central space of the Serpentine). This is Barney's first major showing of his work in London, aside from the film screenings of his more famous Cremaster suite that was shown in cinemas in the early 2000's. But there is no chronological construct to the show, it doesn't follow a linear path from Restraint to Restraint, but jumbles them up. You can't follow a normal procession around the gallery, but have to retrace your steps back through the central chamber to enter one of the side rooms because you can only enter so far into the room otherwise filled with sculpted oil derivatives. This is, of course, endemic of Barney's theory of creativity, of which more, later.

I suppose it's common knowledge now that the preoccupying drive of Barney's practice is athleticism and its inherent allusions - the Vaseline, the bandaging, the homoeroticism, the sado-masocism...

Aside from the earlier Restraints that are documentary in their inclusion, the meat of the show is the huge sculptures/installations. Lending from the Drawing Restraint 9 film, showing concurrently in the Gate Picturehouse in Notting Hill, these are meditations on whale blubber becoming Vaseline becoming icebergs. Icebergs becoming steel flensing ramps becoming sports hall floor mats. Amongst these sloping spermy slabs is a piece called Ambergris, a long floor bound sculpture that looks like a recently exhumed mast from a seabed shipwreck. It is covered in shrimp, taking the place of barnacles, and harpooned, oozing white blubber. The harpoon's rope trailing back through the gallery, white and waxy and ending up on the drum wheel that sits atop the sculpture Holographic Entry Point in the room on the other side of the gallery.

Drawing Restraint is sexy and brute.

However, at the same time it manages to be sterile and neutered. Without prior knowledge of Barney's work the show could seem needlessly opaque. There are familiar motions and signals to towards artists like Nauman and Beuys. What, though, makes this exhibition exciting are the continuous unsolvable/solvable clues - the titles of the work; Flensing of the Occidental Guest, Holographic Entry Point and the extraordinary materials such as self-lubricating plastic and polycaprolactone. (Polycaprolactone, I have since learnt, is a biodegradable plastic derived from crude oil. Some of the forms they take in the exhibition however are more reminiscent of the very-unbiodegrable plastics that are found floating en masse across the oceans).

The drawings are spidery and scratchy (obviously), sometimes quite pretty: a pencil sketch of rough sea and then some have the massive penetrations found in Manga. In one if the films there Barney is on deck tied back, a bit Turneresque, but always Houdini. The imagery is full of oblique references - he is depicted as a sexless satyr, he is the athlete rubbing chalk on his hands and struggling with weightlifters barbells cast in petroleum wax and jelly. Although it can seem that Barney's work is intractably conceptual there is some division of ideas given in the catalogue. This notion of the athlete is synonymous with Barney, as much now as his relationship with Bjork. It stems from the idea of hypertrophic training (building muscle by placing increasingly excessive demand on it), a key element in understanding his work, as well as his theory of 'The Path' which takes a triumvirate structure in elucidating artistic creation:

Situation, Condition and Production.

'Situation gives rise to raw creative energy (undirected) as in adolescent sexual creative change...'

'Condition is the funnel of discipline... visceral fortitude.' Condition acts like the stomach and the womb - breaking down the inserted 'bolus' then nourishing the 'bolus' and encouraging growth.

'Production is raw creative energy - Production is the anal output of the Path, joining the mouth of Situation with the anus of Production, creating and endless loop.'

It is a visually thrilling and confounding show, and I've only touched on a small part of what is there, but where was the smell?... I wanted there to be a stench of ambergris (very pleasant perfume considering it comes from the guts of sperm whales) or of Vaseline at th


Serpentine Gallery
Kensington Gardens
London W2 3XA

Daily, 10am-6pm

Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint —