It is an understatement to say that the work of Matthew Barney elicits strong reactions. Critics have alternately hailed him as “the most important American artist of his generation” (that’s the New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman) and complained of his art’s Wagnerian grandiosity, needless inscrutability, pretentiousness, and icy perfection (“loveless” was one of the words the San Francisco Chronicle’s Kenneth Baker used to describe “Drawing Restraint 9,” Barney’s 2006 show at SFMOMA).
As someone whose initial infatuation with Barney’s work is increasingly tempered by skepticism, I think there is truth to both camps. You’ll be able to deliver — or perhaps revise — your own verdict at the Roxie Theater, which is presenting all 7.5 hours of the epic Cremaster Cycle (1995-2002), Barney’s five-part, officially-never-gonna-be-available-on-commercial-DVD magnum opus. The theater is also screening De Lama Lâmina, Barney’s near hour-long 2004 film, in which he collaborates with a Brazilian Carnaval krewe to orchestrate a performance aboard a float in Salvador da Bahia’s annual parade.
Barney’s art becomes increasingly frustrating and seductive the longer one attempts to decode its carefully staged and indisputably visually stunning pageantry, which encompasses death metal covers of Johnny Cash, the esoteric intricacies of Masonic symbolism, Busby Berkeley-style revues in football stadiums, androgynous water sprites, and the complex biology of sexual differentiation in the fetus (the series is named after the muscle that controls the descent of the testes). The one constant is Barney’s display of his body: frequently nearly-nude, but more often subject to some physically demanding ordeal or engaged in an athletic feat.
As Daniel Birnbaum astutely observes in Artforum, “Barney is a believer in ‘the meaning of meaning.'” Which is to say, nothing is done just for show in Barney’s world, even if the systems of meaning he draws upon — developmental biology, Celtic mythology, Mormonism, minimalist sculpture — are themselves enclosed within, and at times frustratingly occluded by, his art’s glossy packaging and Hollywood-level production values. It’s hard not to ask: what does it all mean? But the question easily gets lost within the Cremaster Cycle‘s lavishly appointed echo chambers.
That said, Barney’s art offers no shortage of beautiful moments and otherworldly imagery. His universe encompasses elegance (Aimee Mullins as a gorgeous cheetah woman in Cremaster 3) and horror (the conception scene early on in Cremaster 2). Whether or not all this beauty is truth is still up for debate.
THE ODD COUPLE
Robert Koch Gallery is currently home to quite the odd couple. From the 1960s to 1985, Czech artist Miroslav Tichy, formerly a painter, took thousands of surreptitious pictures of women in his hometown of Kyjov using various homemade cameras made from whatever was on hand: cardboard tubes, wood, sanded Plexiglass lenses.
The photographs — creased, badly printed, all in soft focus — are as dreamy as they are creepy: Tichy often cropped off the heads of his unknowing subjects (many of whom are in swimwear), leaving their identities anonymous while reducing them to bared legs and torsos. Despite their aura of timelessness, you feel dirty looking at Tichy’s photos. It’s hard, though, not to keep staring.
Plenty of isolated gams appear in the work of Hungarian artist Foto Ada, also at Koch, but the effect is far less sinister. Ada (maiden name, Ada Ackermann, married name, Elemérné Marsovsky) created her remarkable photo-collages from the late 1930s through World War II, clipping magazine and newspaper images of soldiers, Hollywood starlets, and industrial landscapes into sharp and humorous comments on the accelerated culture of her time. The Nazis, in particular, gets theirs: Hitler and Goebbels converse in skeleton-filled catacombs, appropriately oblivious to the death that surrounds them.
THE CREMASTER CYCLE PLUS DE LAMA LÂMINA
July 30– Aug. 8, $5–$9.75
3117 16th St., SF
MIROSLAV TICHY + FOTO ADA
Through Aug. 21, free
Robert Koch Gallery
49 Geary, SF