The mesmeric power of Matthew Barney's parallel filmic universe lies in its inevitable acceptance of an agenda that is ultimately human in its aspirations. It is never so alien as to shut the viewer out, nor so familiar as to make the viewer comfortable. He provides just enough of what we know to initiate a handshake, and more than enough of what we don't know to suggest that a new millennium demands a new mythology. Barney began his Cremaster cycle in 1994 when he was 27. The cycle consists of five films, a formidable body of related sculpture, and hundreds of photographs and drawings. The cycle ended this year with a retrospective exhibition of all the Cremaster work at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where it remains on view through June 11. Responding to the exhibition, the New York Times' chief art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote of Barney: "Hands down, he is, at just shy of 36, the most compellingly, richly imaginative artist to emerge in years. Cremaster . . . gives us an inspired benchmark of ambition, scope, and forthright provocation for art in the new century."
Two physical phenomena are key to the evolution of Barney's Cremaster cycle. The first is that stage of fetal development in which the body exists in a state of undifferentiated sexuality, a period when the unborn floats free of gender. The second is the cremaster muscle, which regulates the temperature of the testes and ensures the potency of the sperm; the muscle also raises and lowers the testes (in cold, in fear). Each of the films is a journey in search of harmony and balance as imagined in narratives where the body is both a character and a psychological landscape.
Over the years, the Cremaster films have had their own separate lives with the occasional theatrical and festival release, but the Manhattan run of Cremaster 3 (2002) at Film Forum showed that the film community had finally grown comfortable enough with Barney's work to provoke raves in Variety ("Matthew Barney delivers his masterpiece in Cremaster3 . . . ") and the New York Times ("To my eyes . . . the Cremaster films convey a sense of antic adventure and playfulness that all but vanished from the Star Wars movies beginning with The Phantom Menace"). The Walker screenings offer audiences the opportunity to find their own maps through the Cremaster universe, both sequentially and chronologically.
The Walker's relationship with Barney goes back to 1993, when his work first entered the permanent collection. It continued through the Walker's 1999 exhibition Cremaster 2: The Drones' Exposition, which marked the first time Barney combined all facets of the cycle (film, sculpture, photography, drawing) into one exhibition; that installation is now jointly owned by the Walker and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Walker is also the only museum in the United States to have collected all of the Cremaster films and a sculpture related to each. Cremaster 1 is currently on view in an installation in Gallery 6.
In cooperation with Palm Pictures and Landmark Theatres, who present the Minneapolis theatrical release of Cremaster 3 in June, the Walker is providing a rare opportunity to view the complete film cycle in a cinematic setting. Barney will be on hand to provide insight into his Cremaster work in a Regis Dialogue with Walker Chief Curator Richard Flood on May 6.