Preferring to categorize himself as a sculptor rather than a video or performance artist, Matthew Barney became an art world darling before age 35 with his ambitious avant-garde film fantasia The Cremaster Cycle (1994-2002).
Born in San Francisco, Barney moved to Boise, ID, with his family at age six. When his parents split six years later, Barney stayed with his father and sister in Boise, visiting his artist mother regularly in New York. Rather than dreaming of an art career in his teens, though, Barney distinguished himself as the quarterback for his high school's championship-winning football team. Too short to play college ball, overachieving class president Barney opted to go to Yale and paid his way through college by modeling. After a couple of semesters in premed, Barney shifted to Yale's art department, where his abstract sculptures caught the eye of students in the more distinguished graduate program. Barney drew on his jock background (and revealed his enduring interest in Vaseline as a creative medium) in his 1989 senior thesis, Field Dressing, a two-part video project featuring Barney raising and lowering his nude body over a vat of petroleum jelly that he periodically smeared over his eyes, nose, mouth, and genitals, and then a wedding gown-clad Barney battling football training equipment. Moving to New York after graduation, Barney showed Field Dressing in a group show in 1990. Drawing attention with his objects sculpted out of Vaseline and tapioca as well as his videos, Barney scored his first solo show in 1991 in a Los Angeles gallery. Barney immediately became a new art star when the show opened in New York, despite criticism from some quarters deeming his art shameless, empty exhibitionism. Nevertheless, Barney's work was included in such internationally renowned shows as the Whitney and Venice Biennials in 1993, garnering comparisons to artists Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden. By the mid-'90s, Barney was dubbed the "most important artist of his generation" by the New York Times.
The primary reason for such superlatives was Barney's eight-year, multimedia Cremaster Cycle. Exploring, as he called it, "the life cycle of an idea," Barney merged his interest in a concept's development through an unresolved artwork with his fascination with the human embryo's moment of physiological limbo before the gonads either ascend or descend to create a female or male child (the "cremaster" being the muscle that controls the rising and lowering of the testicles). Starring himself in various guises and packed with extreme, visceral, and silly references to pagan mythology, architecture, pop culture, art, biology, and his autobiography, Barney's Cremaster films were akin to avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren's tangled, narcissistic dream worlds and Kenneth Anger's hypnotic excursions into masculine imagery and mythopoeic allegory. Though he had devised how the cycle would progress geographically and thematically before he started shooting in 1993, Barney immediately revealed his disinterest in anything resembling conventional narrative when he released Cremaster 4 first in 1994. Set on Britain's Isle of Man, Cremaster 4 featured a flame-haired satyr Barney tap-dancing amid androgynous body-builders and struggling up a Freudian tunnel clogged with Vaseline, and a motorcycle race between two teams heading in opposite directions. As with the subsequent Cremasters, Cremaster 4 was accompanied by gallery shows of sculptures, photos, and drawings from the film, with the sales of the art pieces funding the increasingly expensive cycle. Appearing in 1995, Cremaster 1 evoked Busby Berkeley musicals with its chorus girls dancing on the blue AstroTurf field of Boise's Bronco Stadium, while performer Marti Domination ran the show from a Goodyear blimp hovering above. Barney coaxed retired Bond girl Ursula Andress into playing the Queen of Chain in 1997's Cremaster 5, the cycle's Budapest opera finale featuring Barney as a giant with his genitals tethered to pigeons that may not allow his scrotum to make the fateful descent into the troubled waters of sexual differentiation. 1999's Cremaster 2 was part twisted Western and part crime film, with Norman Mailer appearing as Harry Houdini and Barney playing Mailer's The Executioner's Song subject, doomed Utah murderer Gary Gilmore. Emphasizing its place as the cycle's turning point as well as its "climax," the three-hour Cremaster 3 (2002) was the most elaborate film of the five. Cheekily referencing Barney's position in the art world as well as the difficulties of being male, Cremaster 3's set pieces involved an Oedipal battle on the spire of the Chrysler Building between artist Richard Serra's malevolent Architect and Barney's Entered Apprentice, and Barney's struggle to scale the interior of New York's Guggenheim Museum, vanquishing model and amputee Aimee Mullins' cheetah woman in the process. Hailed as the brilliant end to a Wagnerian project, the debut of Cremaster 3 in 2002 was followed by the New York Guggenheim's solo show of artworks from the entire cycle and the cycle's theatrical release (in order) in 2003.
Featuring 12 lines of dialogue over the six-and-a-half-hour running time, The Cremaster Cycle played to packed houses in specialty theaters, earning as much praise for its range and imagination as derision for its solipsism, banal masculine trials, and sleep-inducing longueurs. Though Barney's relationship with eccentric pop star Björk made the artist even more of an avant-media darling for the new millennium, "the Michelangelo of genital art" limited his self-revelations to his onscreen Cremaster exploits, and spoke in interviews only about his work. While the films' consecutive order illuminated the geographical journey from West to East, and the running concern with sexuality and its discontents, The Cremaster Cycle remained deliberately ambiguous, a stance echoed by Barney's enigmatic explanations of the films and undefined plans for an encore.