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Matthew Barney
in Cremaster 2
1999



Matthew Barney
Cremaster 5
1997



Cremaster 3
film still
2002



Cremaster 4
film still
2002
Matthew Barney: The Big Lie
by Charlie Finch


If you've ever looked closely at Matthew Barney, you can see that, like Ronald Reagan, he has a very tiny narrow head in proportion to the rest of his body. To approximate the ratio, just balance a kiwi fruit on top of a bunch of celery.

Also like Ronald Reagan, Matthew Barney is incapable of sustained coherence over any appreciable amount of time. But, like Ronald Reagan, Matthew Barney has a large, cult like claque of enthusiasts who applaud his every move.

Thus, both Reagan and Barney resemble Chauncey Gardiner, Jerzy Kosinski's idiot savant in Being There who commands the world with a few choice innocuities.

When he first exhibited at Soho's Althea Viafora Gallery a decade ago, Barney instinctively grasped the locus of art world conformity: The male crotch.

Since Courbet's Origin of the World, the conformist art world has lived in fear of the creative enormity of the vagina, seeking displacement in all sorts of abstract strategies.

It was Barney's simple genius to invent a male alternative, the cremaster, much like Ronald Reagan invented "the evil empire," derived from Joseph Campbell and Star Wars.

Animated by homoerotic tension, the cremaster concept united penis, scrotum and anus into a powerful, if incomplete, alternative to the vagina.

His fans, mostly of the male persuasion, flocked to Matthew's persona, and from 1993 on, he has been able to do no wrong, no matter how hackneyed and derivative the borrowed images of his mythology become.

And exactly how hackneyed would that be? Well, Doctor Johnson discredited the fake poems of Ossian 250 years ago, but that doesn't prevent Barney form exploiting them.

And Norman Mailer and Carry Schiller wrote The Executioner's Song about murderer Gary Gilmore 25 years ago, and then produced the excellent TV movie of same, starring Tommy Lee Jones, but Barney still acts as if he discovered Mr. Gilmore.

The giant, the Loughton race on the Isle of Man, the vaseline, the horses sweating up in Saratoga, Richard Serra: all are products of a fevered brain, incapable of reason or analysis, that doesn't know if it's coming or going.

But, I guess, since Barney was reportedly a male model for a few minutes, that makes it wonderful, doesn't it?

Fortunately, unborn, future generations will stick this garbage with Bouguereau and Puvis de Chavannes where it belongs, in the dumpster. Collectors, all you have to lose is your money.


CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).