San Francisco likes to think of Matthew Barney as a native son. Though he moved to Idaho at age six, Barney, born in 1967, spent his early childhood here, and the city has not forgotten this talented, wildly successful spawn. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art served as the only U.S. venue for a full-scale survey of the artist’s Drawing Restraint series in 2005. Barney won the Bay Area Video Coalition’s James D. Phelan Art Award in Video in 2000. And for two decades, some of the most thoughtful ongoing writing about Barney’s work has been penned by San Francisco-based critic and curator Glen Helfand. Barney continues to work frequently with technicians and editors in San Francisco.
Barney adds a very apt prize to his heavily weighted CV with the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award (April 30). The San Francisco International Film Festival's POV accolade honors artists who work outside convention, and Barney is in good company, as always; past winners include innovators Robert Frank, Kenneth Anger, and Errol Morris.
That Barney’s “vision” is original and rarified was apparent from the start. As an unknown 20-year old hidden away in the basement of the Yale gymnasium, he created Drawing Restraint 1–6, a series of non-narrative films viewed primarily through video stills. In the series, Barney filmed himself as he strained against the force of self-imposed restraints—usually a ramp-and-pulley system, harnessed around his waist—to reach a far wall in order to make a mark with a drawing utensil. In Drawing Restraint, Barney’s body is his tool and he eagerly submits it to exploring a fear of, and attempt to overcome, failure. The trials were ritualistic and futile, filled with longing and a clumsy grace.
The artist pushed his original vision further with his grand opus, the Cremaster Cycle. These phantasmagoric, gender-bending films are difficult even to describe. They are visually lush, dense, and bizarre—equal parts performance, film and sculpture. In addition to having written and directed the films, Barney played central characters in all of them, alongside, among other characters, a legless cat-woman (Cremaster 3), blimps flown over a marching band in an empty football stadium (Cremaster 1) and Norman Mailer portraying Harry Houdini (Cremaster 2).
They are an ambitious, dark wonder, and they catapulted the artist to critical and market acclaim. In 1991, at 24, Barney had a solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. In the wake of that show, critics generally lauded Matthew Barney; in 1999, New York Times Art critic Michael Kimmelman famously described him as “the most important American artist of his generation.”
It is the “persistence” part of SFIFF award that really strikes me; it may be the most appropriate phrasing I’ve encountered to describe Barney’s work. The Drawing Restraint series is a study in persistence in two ways. First, the earliest experiments (Drawing Restraint 1–6) are themselves about persistence in his enacting the masochistic reiteration of an essentially futile physical gesture, in part reflecting the endless hours Barney had devoted to repetitive athletic practice across his adolescence. Moreover, the entire series is an exercise in persistence. It began when Barney was an undergraduate at Yale, and a quarter century later, it continues: Concurrent with the presentation of the POV award, Barney will be debuting Drawing Restraint 17 in San Francisco. For the thousands of art and film undergrads who study this series, they are looking at a contemporary project that began before they were born. In an era of 10-minute web-based projects, that, Reader, is admirable persistence.
While the series is still centered on testing the body’s resistance to force through repetition and restraint, it has departed some from the bluntness and raw vulnerability of the early experiments. The early (Drawing Restraint 1–6 works are less well known, but those attached to the scrappy underdog of those works may feel that something is lost as the artist becomes an expectant hero. His newer iterations are slicker, and more narrative-based; Drawing Restraint 9, Barney’s best known work from the series, is a feature-length film. These latter works more closely resemble the Cremaster films in their higher production values and storytelling strategies, which is not to say that the newer Drawing Restraints forfeit the eagerness and immediacy of their forbearers.
Even as the scale, budget, and focus of Barney’s work has evolved, certain themes persist. Both the Drawing Restraint and Cremaster series investigate the intersection of desire and discipline. Both are fundamentally concerned with how the body operates internally, and how it gains literal and figurative definition. Both are unafraid to pioneer wildly unconventional methods in filmmaking. This is Barney’s legacy, and he does it like no one else.
Fittingly, Glen Helfand moderates the Persistence of Vision Award on-stage discussion with Barney. Historically, Barney has been an enigmatic on screen and in public, which feeds curiosity in the work itself. This will make Saturday an extra treat; Barney will discuss his experience and expectations across a career of unconventional filmmaking. Persistence and vision, indeed.
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