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Matthew Barney's enigmatic art ponders issues of gender, the body and identity, raising more questions than it answers.

Body of Work

If the first thing you think of when you hear the name "Barney" is a big, dopey, purple dinosaur, then you may be way out of the loop. Matthew Barney, the artist recently called "the most important new artist of the decade" by the New York Times Magazine, is coming to town in celluloid form and he's definitely not singing "I love you, you love me."

The Virginia Museum's Fast/Forward series will feature two of Barney's films, "Cremaster 4" and "Cremaster 5," on April 13 to a sold-out audience. But what makes the New York artist so important? A peek into his career and bizarre art may provide the first clue into cracking the Barney cipher.

Barney, the 32-year old artist celebrated initially for sculpture and video explorations of his own body, has propelled himself quickly into the art world since his 1991 debut. While he is foremost a sculptor (he received his B.A. in sculpture from Yale University after being recruited from Boise, Idaho to play football), his most famous works of art are his four "Cremaster" films created between 1994 and 1999.

Barney emerged on the art scene in 1991 after a stint at modeling, even working briefly for J. Crew. (Audiences should keep this in mind when they see how he gloriously effaces his own American good looks by transforming into a fissure-headed goat boy in "Cremaster 4"). He made his New York splash — er, skid rather — when on the eve of his debut, Barney scaled the walls and ceiling of the Barbara Gladstone Gallery naked, and engaged in a number of exertions that included lowering himself into a refrigerated chamber full of Vaseline-covered sports equipment and promptly applying the ointment to his orifices. The visitors to the gallery the next day were greeted with a video of this bizarre action, climbing marks on the walls and the leftover greasy equipment.

This performance was the impetus for several motifs that reappear in later "Cremaster" films: orifices, petroleum jelly and the remnants thereof. But if this sounds too abject to provide a foundation for one's artistic corpus, think again. Barney has made an art form out of goo. He has found visual poetry in scrotums and ovaries. This, however, does not really go to explain why the films are stressed as "recommended for adults only."

While genitalia and Crisco-covered orifices may seem the stuff of X-rated fetish flicks, Barney's films have a closer affinity, in my opinion, to the Teletubbies. Both have a truly banal quality — lots of repetition, inane gesturing, a clinical artificiality, lush colors and most importantly, quirky, sexually ambiguous creatures. This is not to say that one should park a 2-year-old in front of "Cremaster 4," but Barney does seem to capture a sense of childlike play and absurdity that mutates and morphs and ultimately remains unresolved. As Margo Crutchfield, the director of the Fast/Forward series notes, "Fact and fiction are blurred. Barney presents an outrageous and baffling arena in which issues of gender, the body and the construction of identity do battle."

Barney's follow-up performance after the 1991 work was a video for the 1993 Whitney Biennial where he was featured as one of two ram-horned satyrs eternally grappling in the back seat of a limousine. With these works under his belt and largely funded by gallery owner Gladstone, Barney began his enigmatically titled five-part cycle of films in 1994, the "Cremaster" series.

The term "cremaster" is the medical term for the suspensory muscle of the testes that contracts the male genitalia in response to stimuli such as cold or fear and which, in the fetus, provides the first indication of male sexuality. Barney obviously conceived the entire epic story behind the cycle before he began the individual components, but to add even more confusion to these gender-bending, mythical stories, he developed them out of order (or at least numbered them as such). Like the Star Wars series, Barney created "Cremaster 4" first in 1994, then "Cremaster 1" (1995-96), "Cremaster 5" in 1997, and "Cremaster 2" in 1999. "Cremaster 3," set to debut in 2001, will be the final installation of this operatic series. Each 40-120 minute film has included a book, drawings, limited edition sets of stills in self-lubricating plastic frames and installations of various props used in the videos.

The first film, "Cremaster 4," features Barney as a narcissistic satyr in a white suit who tap dances and crawls through a Vaseline-laden tunnel while motorbikes race and Schwarzenegger-esque fairies picnic and change tires. "Cremaster 1" was filmed on a football field in Idaho and includes Good Year blimps, dronelike flight attendants, fallopian tube-shaped centerpieces and endless aerial view formations of happy chorus girls.

In "Cremaster 5," Barney stars as a type of magician/giant/diva in a Gothic-style romance set in Budapest opposite Ursula Andress, former Bond girl in "Dr. No." The fourth film, "Cremaster 2," digresses from the more mythological elements of the three earlier ones, being largely inspired by Norman Mailer's book, "The Executioner's Song" which documents the infamous true tale of the Utah murderer Gary Gilmore.

Despite various locales and protagonists and a curious lack of cohesive narrative and dialogue, certain themes reoccur in most of Barney's films: references to medical science and sports, entrapment and escape, metamorphosis, ritual and ceremony, and journey. Barney seems to create a personal mythology and iconography but has been fairly reticent in decoding his art.

Nonetheless, if an overall storyline can be gleaned in these works, it would be one in which characters of his myths are challenged to overcome and undergo certain rites of transformation. Like Joseph Campbell asserted in "The Hero With a Thousand Faces," all cultural myths follow a single pattern of a heroic journey. Barney's journey is undeniably tied to sexuality. It has been noted that he seems to be searching for a clinical type of sexual ambiguity that actually occurs in utero when a fetus is still sexually undifferentiated and the male/female balance is in perfect harmony. The entire "Cremaster" series then, in its baffling, complex and perverse way, may indeed be simply a search for that original prenatal harmony. Barney originally studied pre-med at Yale which may explain his obsessive interest in the body and gender formation.

Despite all this, audiences will undoubtedly come out after viewing his films, scratching their heads and uttering a collective "huh?" But great art often asks more questions than it answers. In one Vaseline-coated nutshell, this is Matthew