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Emily Burchell artist research: Matthew Barney

Matthew Barney was born March 25, 1967, in San Francisco. In 1989, he graduated from Yale University, New Haven. The art which he creates combines sculptural installations with performance and video. His inspiration for creative process utilizes the physical aspects of sport and the various ways in which man can be involved in movement to find any limits of the body pertaining to sexuality. By doing this type of investigating, Barney's work reflects his own past as an athlete, while also contributing to the topic of the body often seen in the work of many contemporary artists. Barney’s actions are exposed in various hybrid spaces that are often in the form of an athletic center and medical research laboratory. Often, these spaces consist of wrestling mats and blocking sleds, sternal retractors and speculums, and a range of props often molded into, or coated with, substances such as wax, tapioca, and petroleum jelly. Indeed, his earliest works, created at Yale, were staged at the university’s athletic recreational center. The use of this atmosphere for creation, Barney’s visual presentations (such as a man dressed up in costume and Barney himself absolutely naked or dressed as a transvestite) further display figurative movements and dancing to distinguish sexual differentiation.

Barney’s fascination and artistic representation of the body is inspired by the athlete and human development. He utilizes the idea of physical struggle and resistance by giving the illusion of muscular growth through the ripping and internal physiology existing within the body during exercise. The end result is a stronger, healthier muscular function. This articulate relationship between the idea of wanting something, self discipline, and the action of actually being productive is the basis for Barney’s thoughts on the differences between sexes.

A work in which Barney is most known for is his Cremaster cycle, which he created in 1994. Similar to the Star Wars trilogy, he did not follow any sort of chronological order with his creations. The first production was Cremaster 4, in 1994, then Cremaster 1, in 1995, followed by Creaster 5, in 1997, Cremaster 2, in 1999, and finally Cremaster 3, in 2002. The Cremaster cycle takes the form of feature films, all of which are written and directed by Barney. He also partakes in acting as one or more characters in his own films, along with the creation of sculptures, drawings, and photographs which he ties into the series. The concept that Barney is trying to embody with this work is the male cremaster muscle. This particular muscle controls testicular contractions in response to various external stimuli. I feel that he is successful in presenting this because his imagery is somewhat grotesque and intrigues the viewer to investigate the situation, even if the viewer might feel slightly uncomfortable or threatened. This results in the idea that the viewer would possess a slightly defensive reaction, thus embodying the function and actions represented by the cremaster muscle. Through the creation of this cycle, Barney found a way to look beyond biology as a way to explore the human creation, utilizing other sources for structure and artistic presentation, such as biography, mythology, and geology.


An artist which I would compare Matthew Barney to would be Catherine Sullivan. Both Barney and Sullivan use film to evoke various emotions of curiosity and hesitation from the viewer. By displaying a series of awkward body movements and distorted visual appearances, I find they are both successful in creating a type of bazar artistic point of view. The human body is a main focal point for both of these artists. They both utilize the manipulation of natural movement and control of the human body to create an illusion of a loss of control and bodily function.

I would recommend a friend to view the work of Matthew Barney because it is very interesting. The art he creates is not a vision that can be seen any other way. The work provokes curiosity and triggers the mind of the viewer to experience various emotions that are fantastical and indescribable. The work is as if it were a dream. Also, I would recommend a viewer because I have never seen another art form which comes close to that of Matthew Barney's presentations.


Matthew Barney: the cremaster cycle.
Author/Creator: Barney, Matthew
Publisher: Astrup Fearnley museet for moderne kunst

Author/Creator: Barney, Matthew
Matthew Barney's official web site.