SFMOMA Curator on Matthew Barney

Thomas Logoreci July 17, 2006

In what is shaping up to be the Bay Area art event of the summer, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is presenting the only U.S. showing of Matthew Barney’s extensive “Drawing Restraint” series. Covering more than two decades of work by the San Francisco-born Barney, the vast installation features video performance, sculpture, drawings, and photographs by the artist perhaps most famous for his epic ‘Cremaster’ films.

The exhibit also includes last year’s theatrically-released “Drawing Restraint 9,” Barney’s dazzling vision of Japanese ritual which also stars his partner Björk. The word is that “Drawing Restraint 9” will not be making its way to DVD (see Glen Helfand’s Matthew Barney, ‘Drawing Restraint,’ getting attention” in SF360.org), so the SFMOMA show may be one of the last ways to see the film for some time.

SFMOMA, which was one of the first museums to feature Barney way back in 1991, runs “Drawing Restraint” until September 17th. The show’s curator, Benjamin Weil, took time out from last-minute preparations to answer several e-mail questions about Barney’s artistic process.

SF360: Could you talk about how this collaboration with SFMOMA and Matthew Barney came together and a little about the museum’s past history with the artist?

Benjamin Weil: Matthew Barney was given his first museum exhibition at SFMOMA in 1991. Work from that exhibition was acquired for the museum’s permanent collection. The museum has subsequently presented Matthew Barney’s work regularly. This floor-through exhibition is by far the most ambitious of all exhibitions the museum has given the artist. ‘Drawing Restraint’ spans the entire career of the artist, beginning in 1987. The most recent work in the exhibition is ‘Drawing Restraint 14,’ a site-specific drawing performance that was carried out in the museum’s turret on June 9, 2006. Presented in the exhibition are the drawing traces of the climb through the museum’s architecture as well as a high definition video of about 30 minutes in duration.

Visitors can acquaint themselves in-depth with the work of an artist who draws his main inspiration from others who have been working with performance since the 1960s, (including Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramovic, Richard Serra, Vito Acconci, and Bruce Nauman). Matthew Barney incorporates sculpture, photography, film, and drawings, to create intricate, multi dimensional and multimedia narratives out of this strategy.

SF360: Can you describe the basic concept of the ‘Drawing Restraint’ exhibition?

Weil: ‘Drawing Restraint’ (is) predicated by the notion of focused and creative energy being the result of a physical constraint. Literally, the idea is to set conditions of physical restraint to achieve a drawing. Another way to understand this is the idea of rendering the effect of physical constraint. This strategy is at the core of the entire series. At first, the drawing was performed in the artist’s studio and the performance recorded on video. It was then presented as an installation, consisting of the drawing — the ‘result’ of the performance, the props and set for the restraint, as well as the video recording. Out of this strategy came a structure, in which the props and set gradually turn into sculpture (and) the video becomes a fully scripted narrative in the form of a feature-length film. The film becomes the only actual recording of the ‘performance’, while the sculpture, photographs and drawings are directly derived from the narrative structure of the film.

The presentation of the entire series also enables the visitor to see how this process has evolved, from the early ‘Drawing Restraint’ (1 to 6) to ‘Drawing Restraint 7,’ on to ‘Drawing Restraint 9’ film, the most complex chapter in this ongoing series. Because of the time required to see the show and the film, a choice was made to present ‘Drawing Restraint 9’ free of charge. As with the installation, the film has layers of narrative that benefit from multiple viewings. As one is gradually immersed in the world of Matthew Barney more and more things appear.

SF360: Could you talk about how it’s been working with Matthew Barney and your feelings about his work as an artist?

Weil: There is something truly compelling about Matthew Barney’s very personal approach to the history of performance. For instance, the storytelling aspect is very important. He has created his own vocabulary out of his interpretation and interest in the work of the artists aforementioned and continues to reformulate this notion of relationship between process and product. It is also really interesting to see how narratives are elaborated out of his interest in modern forms of epic mythology and rituals (which) he then re-appropriates to create his own.

SF360: The installation covers 20 years of Barney’s work and takes up an entire floor of the museum. How did the two of you go about conceiving the arrangement of all these elements for this exhibit?

Weil: This exhibition is the third presentation of similar content (with a few new elements here), but each time informed by the way Matthew Barney approaches the space in which he is working. In San Francisco, for instance, his site-specific performance is much more central to the exhibition, not only because it is physically located in the middle of it, but also because of the scale of the drawing. There is also an incredible dynamic between the large sculptural work, as well as all the video footage. There are numerous ways to enter the work, and the various dynamics create all kinds of really compelling narrative possibilities.

SF360: What do you think the biggest misconception of Barney’s work is?

Weil: There is a feeling among many people that the work is difficult to decipher. It seems that this exhibition is the opportunity to demonstrate otherwise. The work is rooted in very tangible dynamics, such as storytelling and performance. I also think that the multi-dimensional quality of the installation is very much in keeping with the most current cultural traits. Think how an epic like ‘Star Wars’ has unfolded as film and then T-shirts, toys, computer games, etc. It engages people in different ways, but it is the same story, in the end. Think also about how the world we live in very often tries to create stories and myths to showcase consumer products. The dynamics of advertising, for instance. So in my opinion, this work is not only incredibly relevant, it is also very much of its time.