Since the early 1990’s, Matthew Barney has emerged as one of the leading artists of his generation. His work is currently the subject of a major exhibition, River of Fundament, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The presentation at MOCA encompasses the epic length operatic film River of Fundament (written by Barney in collaboration with composer Jonathan Bepler) and more than eighty additional works inspired by or made in conjunction with the film. These include large-scale sculptures weighing up to 25 tons, drawings, and storyboards. Overall, the works in the exhibition intertwine history and mythology with the contemplation of fundamental human drives such as sex, violence, and power that continuously propel civilizations.
Barney’s film is a prolonged meditation on death, rebirth, transformation and transcendence inspired by Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings (1983), his sprawling, provocative novel set in ancient Egypt. Each of the film’s three acts feature documentation of a site-specific live performance: REN in Los Angeles, 2008 KHU in Detroit, 2010 and BA in Brooklyn, 2013. Advancing the theme of regeneration, the ritual transformation of an American car during each performance generated sculptural elements that have been incorporated into the sculptures on view in the exhibition.
The four Woodburytypes that make up In vain produced, all rays return, Evil will bless, and ice will burn are a further extension of Barney’s River of Fundament project. Woodburytype, a nineteenth-century photomechanical technique involving the printing of photographic images from lead molds using hot gelatin ink, are in this case further transformed by growths of electroformed copper that have been gilded with nickel and 24 karat gold. The transformation of these images (a Crown Victoria, an Imperial, a Transam and a landscape) is typical of Barney’s practice of transgressing his medium of choice. Barney has repurposed images from his film and subjected them to a sort of alchemy that results in a set of images that are entirely new, rich in excess, and ultimately a sensual visual experience.