Through the Sewers of the Privileged and the Divine: Matthew Barney’s “River of Fundament”

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, River of Fundament, 2014, production still.

This film is not for everybody.

To anyone that loves finding poetry in grotesque abjection: watch it. Try to sit through the whole thing. You can do it, and you will love it because it hurts. Matthew Barney made me think about my insides for about 7 hours and that made me feel good and bad but good because I felt bad, and then I’d wonder why is this kinda hot and I’d have a headache, but still I liked it.

And you get to watch Paul Giamatti and Maggie Gyllenhaal do some pretty weird stuff. If you are too squeamish for the film, Barney’s sculptures in themselves are both slick and romantic. They act as worshipped icons that are directly related to his multi-dimensional narrative film.

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, River of Fundament, 2014, production still, courtesy of Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels, © Matthew Barney, photo by Chris Winget

The 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperial, the 1979 Pontiac Firebird, and a Ford Police Interceptor act as living bodies in River of Fundament. These classic American cars reference the creation myths of our ancient ancestors. Both metal and flesh are equally desirable for their gifts, their powers, and their utilities. Both human bodies and car bodies act as powerful vessels for celestial development, however fragile they might seem. The flesh of the dead deteriorates into the earth, and the bones immortalize as fossils for the living to pay homage to. The gods practice in ways that might seem unnatural, but what do I know about nature? Nature has many definitions, and Barney suggests an alternative viewpoint on the spiritual journey.

Barney wants you to demolish the boundaries between civility and instinct. Once all the walls are broken and the viewer discards the ideals of commonly-practiced decency, the spirit realm can present itself. How should one act at a wake? What social restraints do family and friends enforce while mourning their loss? The feeling of grief for a death can take place on multiple planes of existence. These alternative planes are not controlled by time and they only materialize for the ones who possess the ability to unearth the knowledge passed on by their ancestors. This inherited knowledge is in all living objects. Some choose to heed this knowledge while others stray away from it. The ego is just as fragile as the flesh protecting it.

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, River of Fundament, 2014, production still.

You might have heard that there is a lot of butt stuff in this film, which I enjoyed but some viewers might question the validity of. First of all, it’s 2015 and anal is on art’s menu. Second, Barney reveres the asshole as a portal to a divine dimension. Fucking in the ass could be an attempt to spawn gods instead of mere mortals, and the shit is their runny road to easy glory.

The sewage of the privileged is gold to their followers. Worship the golden gods and bask in their yellow-stained light. The choice between immortality and the rebirth is a difficult one. To some, immortality is a hellish prison for egomaniacs who enjoy suffering. Reincarnation is a gift for the chosen ones who have the rare ability to submissively succumb to chance. Throughout history, man has attempted to categorize the human experience. Is rationality man’s greatest accomplishment? The truth is, spirituality is as much a human function as shitting. Connecting to nature is necessary just as much as shitting is necessary.

Matthew Barney, Shaduf, 2014, cast brass, 144 x 120 x 180 in., courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels, installation view of Matthew Barney: RIVER OF FUNDAMENT at Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), 2014-15, photo by Rémi Chauvin/MONA

In the end, according to Barney, throats and lungs produce pulsating tonal rhythms that trigger the appearance of father and mother gods who come to assist the living. The living must honor these gods even though they too suffer from human dispositions. As the gods assist the living, spirit animals assist the gods in their cycles of regeneration. An animal has the ability to humbly intercept the planes and is therefore revered by both the living and the spirits.

Barney’s intensely penetrating film and its bronze, brass, and plastic sculptural remnants are both mysterious and demanding. If you are willing to reject conservative formality and sit through this violently passionate journey through the sewers of the privileged and the divine, I suggest taking a look at his sculptures beforehand. They act as a guide through the film; they show themselves throughout the narrative and develop as monumental characters. Overall, River of Fundament is a trenchant, spiritually stimulating experience for those with adventurous hearts and strong stomachs.

Matthew Barney: RIVER OF FUNDAMENT on View Sep. 13, 2015 – Jan. 18, 2016

Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N Central Ave, Los Angeles

(213) 625-4390 // http://www.moca.org/visit/geffen-contemporary

Written by POVarts contributing writer Chelsea Hill

My Rendezvous With Greg Miller

OK (2015)

As galleries go, William Turner Gallery is a good gallery. It represents the works of established artists, such as Ed Moses, Jay Mark Johnson, Larry Poons, and Roland Reiss. It’s spacious – about 5000 square feet – located in the heart of Bergamot Station in Santa Monica.  I’ve visited many times and written about some of their shows.

The other day, I had a chance to see Greg Miller’s “J Street” at the gallery. In the exhibition I encountered large, overcrowded canvases with depressing color combinations, paint drips extending lethargically downward, I felt as if I was in a gallery of wallpaper peeling off the wall.  Some pieces were resin-coated and others were left untreated, which contributed to an overall rawness. The naked women and old Playboy clippings didn’t make sense to me.

J Street (2015)

J Street (2015)

 So there I was standing in front of a wall thinking, is this it? I came here to see art and end up looking at pages of sexy girls, an old cassette tape, a piece of paper from the Château Marmont, a two-dollar bill, and a business card? Where is the technique and magic that I expect art to have?

Feeling let down by the art world as a whole, I left William Turner Gallery in dismay.

However, on my way out, I noticed a press release on the wall, hung like a work of art in itself. It contained an elegantly written quote about Miller by art critic Peter Frank:

A Girl (2015)

A Girl (2015)

Greg Miller brings the pictorial poise of Pop to the eloquent fury of street art, effecting a marriage – or at least a torrid affair – between two hot items. One item is hot today, the other has been hot for half century, but in Miller’s hands there is no generation gap, only a spiritual union – one that generates a sky, or at least a wall full of sparks.                                (-Peter Frank)

So I thought, okay, maybe I missed something here. And I told myself, “Go home and do your work.”

And so I started with my research and was surprised to discover how little I’d understood Miller’s art and how much I’d missed what he was trying to say. It turns out Miller’s work is inspired by the imagery of pop-culture that manifested itself in people’s consciousness during the 50s and 60s, the Golden Age of American consumerism, a time when television and advertising were flourishing.

I found myself with a new appreciation for why the Frederick R. Weisman and Charles Saatchi Foundation had featured Miller’s work, and an understanding of art critics Peter Frank and Donald Kuspit’s praise for it as great post-pop art.

I had to admit to myself that I didn’t understand Miller’s visual language. But I wasn’t born in America, nor was I born into those golden days of consumerist culture. I didn’t grow up with American billboards or American television; I didn’t grow up with Look Magazine, and while I’m familiar with the works of great American pop artists like Lichtenstein, Warhol, Johns and Rauschenberg, my knowledge about the genre is admittedly limited.

Perhaps I would be able to understand Miller’s work better if I had seen more imagery that had been directly appropriated from this period in American history, imagery delivered via mass media that shaped the American people. To me, this would have been scenes from I Love Lucy or Doris Day films, photographs of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s assassinations, soldiers crawling on the ground during the Vietnam War, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philippe’s first visit to the United States, Marilyn Monroe’s last interview with LIFE magazine, or the image of the first person landing on the moon

American 1 (2015)

American 1 (2015)

Good Look (2015)

Good Look (2015)

So I went back to look at Greg Miller’s work again, and this time, understanding his place in pop-art history, I liked his work better.  The light from outside made the paintings look lighter. Gradually, Miller’s composition made more sense to me. The overcrowded feeling of his paintings followed his system of logic rather than limiting it. Their darkness subverted the promises of the Golden Age. In looking a second time, I discovered things I hadn’t seen there before. And suddenly an image of Kennedy appeared, buried underneath a stack of postings – and then followed the Beverly Boulevard sign bearing the number 8700. A secret message? Hidden Los Angeles treasure? I had to look up the address to see whose it was. And voila… it’s L.A.’s Cedar Sinai hospital!, one of the largest non-profit hospitals in the western United States. And it was then that I realized that if I kept looking and reading the paintings on the wall, I’d keep finding hidden jewels. 

Unfortunately, in my experience, the most powerful works I have seen throughout my life have required the shortest explanation, not the multiple layers that I had to unearth to understand Mr. Miller’s work.  Still, this is a dense and undeniably important show and you should absolutely go see it at the William Turner Gallery and decide for yourself.   

Greg Miller “J Street” on view October 3 – November 14, 2015 at the William Turner Gallery.

William Turner Gallery, Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Avenue Suite E-1, Santa Monica, CA 90404

Written by POVarts contributing writer: Simone Kussatz

Photography Credits: Simone Kussatz

#ArtEverywhereUS, Fails to Break Through the Noise

ArtEverywhere POVart SF

“ArtEverywhereUS” Bay Area Photo by Chuck Frank

Billed as the summer of great American art, and promoted as “the largest outdoor art show ever conceived.” The Art Everywhere US campaign was comprised of 58 artworks, reproduced to a total of 50,000 times, and seen from coast-to-coast throughout August 2014. However ambitious the project was, it failed to break through the visual noise of the city (where we at POVarts saw it). Instead, it either makes the case against painting and photographic art in the public realm, or makes the case for the deep abiding need to support galleries and museums as the primary place to see art.

ArtEverywhere POV3

“ArtEverywhereUS” Bay Area Photo by Chuck Frank

Much like orchestral music choking in the face of rock ‘n’ roll, these fine paintings and photographs whisper valiantly, but without success in the face of their brash commercial graphic relatives. The worst part of the campaign is that it is a foil to great advertising, as almost everything about the formal layout of the campaign fails. Let’s start with the questionable relationship between the original scale of the artworks, and their enlarged reproductions for the billboard format. And then there’s a tangle of words aligned at the bottom corner accompanied by a colored dot with white numbers. The dot doesn’t say anything more that that. It doesn’t tell you that this is 24 out of 58 works. It’s just a numbered dot. The words spell out the artist’s name, the name of the artwork, and the relevant museum collection. At the top of the frame is the hashtag #ArtEverywhereUS. Whereas #ArtEverwhereUs might have been slightly more intriguing, suggesting that in fact we are all the Art, and we are Everywhere. Next, there’s the white frame around the reproduced artwork. Perhaps it is meant to suggest the museum galleries’ white walls, but the effect is a strange off-centeredness of the image in an ad space. The visual noise of the city creeps in, and its cacophony ultimately swallows the reproduced artworks. The city suffers no weakness, and here art feels listless, gaunt and anemic.

ArtEveryWhere POV

“ArtEverywhereUS” NYC Photo by Kit Franco

Walter Benjamin anticipated art’s loss of aura through mechanical reproduction, and here we see his notions materialize. Instead of showcasing art for the masses to see, these works are literally flattened out, losing their specific presence in time and space. While these great artworks may be liberated from a kind of ritual viewing that is part of their being seeing in a museum setting, they enter into a new kind of ritual space, one of desire and consumption. There is an irony that these literally priceless (or very pricey) art objects fill the frame of signage space usually reserved for advertising things to people, to consume, but cannot afford. (Or perhaps in this case, cannot afford to see in person.)

ArtEverywhere POV1

“ArtEverywhereUS” NYC the irony of a homeless woman sitting in a bus shelter with Andy Warhol’s soup can is not lost on us.

We have to wonder about why this public space wasn’t opened up for contemporary and/or emerging artists who don’t have their work hanging in the galleries in haloed museums? For some great examples of billboard space used for contemporary and context specific art see the work done by the Billboard Art Project.

Next to the vibrancy of the street graffiti, #ArtEverywhereUS might even make the case for the aerosol kings who roam the streets after dark showing us what art everywhere might actually look like. In the end, here’s our suggestion – put on great museum shows, and advertise them with the verve and gusto that is the billboard’s common language. Let people know that they’ll be awed and surprised in their local museums, for a short time only, and on some days it’s buy one ticket, get one free.

Written by Chuck Frank (POVarts West Coast Editor) and Kit Franco (East Coast Editor)

“As a Body” at Cooper Cole Gallery

 

"As a Body" installation view.

“As a Body” installation view, featuring: Mira Dancy “Psychic Pillow Charm”, 2014, Acrylic on bleached cotton with polyester, grommet, chain, 67 x 69 x 6″. Photo by Kit Franco

The August summer show at Cooper Cole Gallery, stripes down to the core of humanness: the body. In it, seven artists grapple with the notion of what makes us up, in term of our figure, form, material, and content. It’s an interesting concept, and fits in with this gallery’s cutting edge approach to showing contemporary art. “As a Body” is curated by Kari Cwynar and features work by Mira Dancy, Olivia Dunbar, Allison Katz, Lauren Luloff, Jenine Marsh, Jody Rogac and Camilla Wills.

The overall installation of the show ranges from text-based work in a collaged scroll, to conceptual mixed media photography and video art, to conventional portrait painting and photography with a twist. There is also a sculptural installation that sweeps across the entirety of the gallery space by visually punctuation the walls with swipes, and twists of air-dried clay that has then been glazed to produce an effect that is intriguing while also, a little disconcerting. A friend who came along to see the show thought it looked a little like poo streaks around the walls, I didn’t disagree. The two standout pieces that dominated the show were Mira Dancy’s “Psychic Pillow Charm” and Lauren Luloff’s “Purple Alex”. I would have almost been satisfied just seeing those to works set at angles against opposite corners as they were shown, in a dialogue between nude female forms and naked male both painted in gestural stains on fabric or canvas. The feminine triangle of Dancy’s “Psychic Pillow Charm” references a small amulet/pendant, but holds its own through scale and thickness with a surprising and refreshing authority. Her brushwork is ballsy and present. In the opposite corner of the room, Luloff’s larger-than-life nude male figure is soften, made more feminine and rendered translucent by the strong life coming through the front window of the gallery. The work’s patchwork of stitched fabric supports the loosely rendered modern guy, with his scruffy facial hair, and scrawny limbs he feels like he could be any dude, unveiled in this Matissian way. Besides being stunning works, these two pieces also remind us that the viewer is no longer defined exclusively through the male gaze. Thank God.

As a Body 1

Lauren Luloff, “Purple Alex”, 2014, Bleached bedsheets & fabric, 118 x 78″ Photo by Kit Franco

“As a Body” through September 6th at Cooper Cole Gallery, 1161 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Canada.

written by POVarts East Coast Editor: Kit Franco