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