Matthew Barney’s ‘Drawing Restraint’ series (1987–ongoing) may be best understood as ‘an endless loop between desire and discipline’, a characterization that comes from the artist himself. Barney’s early works functioned as systems designed to ‘defeat’ the challenges of drawing: thus the restrictive harnesses and ramps of Drawing Restraint 1 (1987), which left the artist stretching or groping to set pencil to paper. With 17 subsequent videos delineating evermore elaborate contests of physical strength and psychological willpower against resistance at turns physical, sexual, architectural, cultural, oceanic or spiritual, the series resembles the endless tragicomic trials of a Greek demigod, or its most contemporary incarnation, the athlete. Barney often likens his actions to those of a competitor who uses resistance training in order to build up muscle groups. In a 1990 text titled ‘Notes on Athleticism’, the artist describes this hypertrophic process, concluding: ‘THE ATHLETE IS THE ARTIST’. Barney’s use of jock-ish metaphors can get overplayed, but such tropes point to the fact that the body and its tribulations are central to his practice – and that his thoroughly Postmodern work furthers one of the oldest art-historical traditions: figuration.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to digest the curatorial conceit girding ‘Matthew Barney: Prayer Sheet with the Wound and the Nail’, which surveys the ‘Drawing Restraint’ archive. Here the body takes centre stage, yet the body is not only Barney’s but that of Christ as well. Perhaps inspired by the treasure trove of northern Switzerland’s medieval Christian art, guest curator Neville Wakefield chose to place the ‘Drawing Restraint’ series – with its myriad videos, drawings, objects, vitrines and installations – in conversation with works of Christian iconography. Describing his motives in the catalogue, Wakefield writes: ‘[I]n much the same way as the art of the Middle Ages drew a landscape of spiritual inference from the body of the Saviour, so Barney has used his own body […] to draw out a secular theology of artistic creation.’
Following this grandiose parallel, the show’s installation evokes the many-chambered, symbolically charged environments of Barney’s films, acting as both church and crypt. While the below-ground-level galleries contain the pale, mammoth and carcass-like thermoplastic contours of Cetacea (2005) and Torii (2006), a few sobering medieval works, and the wood-and-soil remnants from Drawing Restraint 17 (2010), the floor above, a multi-room basilica, features the larger archive. Thus Albrecht Dürer’s 16th-century woodcuts detailing the Passion, and Lucas Cranach the Elder’s illumined oil paintings of a dusky Christ crowned with thorns, his eyes cerulean and searching, and the marble-like volumes of Lucretia wielding a knife, attend Barney’s dissembling petroleum sculptures. Nearby, Martin Schongauer’s engravings of a thin, pacific Christ share space with Barney’s drawings in their waxy, self-lubricating frames and a spate of small, hovering monitors playing videos of the artist variously scaling museum walls, drawing with fish blood on a turbulent boat deck or cavorting as a satyr in a limousine.
If Barney’s videos and films are impressive, and his corpus of large installations stunning, his scratchy, provisional drawings and stolid cast objects cannot quite compete with the dexterous, dazzling works by Urs Garf and Hans Holbein the Younger. But this is not the only reason that Wakefield’s Christ/Barney juxtaposition does not quite succeed. ‘Barney offers the spectacle of the imperilled body struggling compulsively with its own vulnerability,’ notes the curator, likening him to the Saviour. Perhaps. Yet ‘vulnerability’ is the most striking element lacking in Barney’s vast arsenal of tools. Despite the trials he sets himself, it is strength that Barney puts on display: from the recurring cast barbells to the dominating figures – satyr, General MacArthur, rock climber, artist – that he inhabits. Thus the lack of connection to the plaintive Christ figures – wracked vessels of our shared failings.
Still, at times the dialogue comes astonishingly alive. The marble-like folds of the woman’s shroud in Hans Baldung Grien’s Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden, c.1540) mirror the white thermoplastic currents in the Cetacea installation nearby. Grien’s painting also inspired Barney’s Drawing Restraint 17, which includes a film of a young woman digging a shallow grave in the fields fronting the nearby Goetheanum, then climbing Schaulager’s tall atrium wall, before falling to her death through a pentagonal wooden structure placed on the floor. Though the film is moving, more so for being the first time Barney has cast another person as the protagonist (and an athletic woman at that), I was most intrigued by J.P. Steudner’s 17th-century print titled Prayer Sheet With the Wounds of Christ.
This print, from which the exhibition’s title is derived, offers enlarged, eroticized images of Christ’s wounds and a crucifixion nail hovering in a stylized field. Surreally medical, the wounds resemble female genitalia, the nail more phallus than relic. This weird twinning of wound and procreation was common at the time (Saint Augustine called Christ’s wound the ‘gate of life’), presaging the ‘Drawing Restraint’ relationship between desire and discipline. The drawing, meanwhile, evinces Barney’s similar interest in well-designed, autonomous forms that function as both sexual signifiers and more arcane symbols in a larger cosmology. See, for example, the symbol of the ‘Drawing Restraint’ series, with its oval form (connoting the body) crossed by the bar (connoting restraint). But the drawing also suggests that had the curator taken a more circumspect and focused approach to his pairing, the revelations about Barney’s work would have been that much more illuminating.
As I moved through the show, I was struck again by the exacting symmetry of Barney’s body of work: from the ‘Drawing Restraint’ symbol, repeated throughout, to the beautifully composed shots of the limousine in Drawing Restraint 7 (1993). If symmetry truly forms the basis of beauty and physical attraction, the ramifications for Barney’s series, with its ‘endless loop’ of disciplined desire, seem clear. In a recent talk, art historian David Joselit spoke of the series as a channelling of drive – alternately sexual, artistic, procreative or death-seeking – into form in an expanded field. Whatever that drive, and despite its presence and sometimes over-articulation, it remains wholly singular. If Christ’s autonomous body became a social vessel that supposedly grew to include the whole of human suffering, Barney’s body (and body of work) still feels remarkably constrained by his individual mores, desires and circumstances alone.