MATTHEW BARNEY: NO RESTRAINTNR
"Yes, but is it art?" is the question that keeps arising during Matthew Barney: No Restraint, an absorbing documentary that seeks to explain this most enigmatic of modern artists. Alison Chernick's film revolves around the making of Barney's Drawing Restraint 9, which, among other things, contained musings on the capture of whales, age-old Japanese traditions, and Barney and his real-life partner, singer Björk, literally devouring each other. That film was a bizarre, unsettling, hypnotic spectacle which perhaps should have been shown in tandem with this doc, if only to answer the myriad questions cropping up in viewers' minds.
"It all comes together as a system that can't overcome its condition. These pieces are important in admitting that," is the most lucid explication Barney offers about his obsession with the concept of restraint and the petroleum jelly which, early in his career, he used to encase found objects and, in Drawing Restraint 9, is expensively shaped into enormous molds which somehow symbolize whales and various restraints placed upon them.
Barney's own father describes him as single-minded child who loved the Superman costume his mother made for him and, later, expressed his desire to go to pre-med school and become a plastic surgeon. ("If he had, can you imagine the strange people who'd be walking around today?") Various culture heavyweights, like Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times (who describes his first impression of Barney as thinking him full of crap), and two black-clad women right out of Central Casting for Manhattan art ladies, Guggenheim curator Nancy Specter and gallery owner Barbara Gladstone (who gave the artist his earliest opportunity), weigh in with laudatory opinions. A dissenting voice or two, such as were used in the Robert Wilson doc Absolute Wilson, would have been welcome in the interests of objectivity.
The work aside, Barney's near-instant success, fresh out of Yale, is also testament to the fact that he was a handsome, white young jock from the Midwest, perfectly sound-byte and camera-ready to grace the cover of all-important Artforum magazine and be catapulted into superstar status. Such are the stringent requirements for achievement in the commercial art world today.
What's undeniable is the happy aesthetic synthesis between Barney's purview and Japanese culture, evinced in the striking footage of the towering architecture of an oil refinery town, which is the setting for a breathtaking ceremonial procession consisting of dozens of brightly-clad dancers bringing oil to the whaling ship. As one Japanese admirer observes, "When Western artists use our culture, it usually makes us cringe, but not so with Barney." Björk's music was a vital, gorgeous, humanizing contribution to Drawing Restraint 9, and she reveals its secrets in her typically quirky-profound fashion.