Petroleum jelly—aka Vaseline®—is iconic, prolific artist Matthew Barney’s most oft used medium. That detail is just the tip of the iceberg of information about the jaw-dropping life and work of an artist who has taken the ‘multi’ in multi-media into the stratosphere.
Although Alison Chernick’s 2006 Matthew Barney: No Restraint may seem dated, what she has captured on camera and microphone is no more or less than art history. Everything about Barney is fascinating and bewildering. He was a quarterback on Yale’s football team, and earned good money as a model. These two adventures are considered black marks on the resumé of anyone aspiring to enter the upper echelons of the art world. Instead, so much of who Barney is and what he does is so non sequiturial, those two activities perfectly fit his iconic status.
Chernick’s film introduces Barney to those of us who haven’t paid attention to the aforementioned upper-echelon art world. But, once informed, we will never be the same. We have taken some version of The Matrix’s red pill. The substance has been permanently installed in our biochemistry. I will be exploring Barney’s work in the weeks, months, and years ahead.
At the time of filming, Barney was working on one project of a series called Drawing Restraint—this was number 9—which included the requisite petroleum jelly (45,000 pounds this time), a film featuring Björk, Japanese sailors and Japanese rituals on a contemporary whaling ship, along with many more elements. The making of this piece is the primary substance of Chernick’s film. Sensitive viewers are cautioned because the film includes archival footage of whale slaughter.
Despite the highly idiosyncratic, exotic nature of Barney’s work, he comes off on documentary film camera as just a normal guy—handsome, charming, successful, enjoying his work and life.