Why We’re All Living in Matthew Barney’s Sticky, Slimy World

In May and June, Matthew Barney, the visionary artist behind the epic “Cremaster Cycle” film series (1994-2002) and “River of Fundament” (2014), will be showing his newest body of work, “Secondary,” at four galleries: Gladstone Gallery in New York; Sadie Coles HQ in London; Regen Projects in Los Angeles; and Galerie Max Hetzler in Paris.

1. Viscous Goo

Credit…From left: © Matthew Barney, courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery; Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters; courtesy of Net-a-Porter

In his first New York solo show in 1991, a 23-year-old Barney presented a video of himself climbing the walls and ceiling of Gladstone Gallery (left), naked in a harness. The video was displayed alongside a walk-in cooler that featured an exercise bench cast in petroleum jelly. Ever since, his work has dripped with translucent fluid. Goo permeates luxury fashion today, from Balenciaga’s so-called slime printed hoodies (right) to the ooze that trickled from the ceiling at two Prada shows last year (center).

2. Full-Frontal Male Nudity

Credit…From left: TCD/prod.db © Universal Pictures/Alamy; © Matthew Barney, courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery. Photo: Michael James O’Brien

Long before Cillian Murphy in “Oppenheimer” (2023) (left), or any number of prestige TV dramas, Barney was fearlessly — some might say gratuitously — breaking one of contemporary culture’s last taboos (right).

3. Bodily Secretions

Credit…From left: © Matthew Barney, courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery. Photo: Hugo Glendinning; courtesy of the Dash Snow Archive, NYC, and Morán Morán; © Neon/Everett Collection

Barney is perhaps the greatest living artist of corporeal fluids, whether urine, feces, semen, blood or breast milk. His 311-minute film “River of Fundament” (left), a very loose adaptation of Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel, “Ancient Evenings,” opens with Barney emerging from a river of excrement, entering Mailer’s home, removing human waste from a toilet, wrapping it in gold leaf and placing it back whence it came, thus conjuring the spirit of a pharaoh who sodomizes him. Barney’s anatomical provocations heavily influenced a younger generation of artists, including Dash Snow (who masturbated onto some of his work) (center) and presaged the river of sewage in Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 film, “Parasite” (right), and the consumption of ejaculate-laden bathwater in 2023’s “Saltburn.”

4. Art About Artist Couples

Credit…From left: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Tas Rights Management; Daniele Venturelli/Wire Image, courtesy of Getty Images; courtesy of Amazon

Not only did the singer Björk (center) write the soundtrack for Barney’s film “Drawing Restraint 9” (2005) — in which the two conduct a Japanese tea ceremony aboard a whaling vessel that floods with molten petroleum jelly — but her lyrics also chronicle their decade-plus relationship, from its happy beginnings (“Who would have known / That a boy like him / Possessed of magical /Sensitivity?” on 2001’s “Vespertine”) to 2015’s “Vulnicura,” in which she declares, “I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions.” Years before Beyoncé’s 2016 “Lemonade” (right) or Taylor Swift’s (left) breakup ballads, Björk and Barney had expanded the ways in which public figures could make their personal lives into art.

5. Macho Androgyny

Credit…From left: Fred W. McDarrah/Muus Collection, courtesy of Getty Images; Elisabetta A. Villa/Getty Images

Fond of elaborate costumes that question traditional gender roles (flamboyant Freemason, tap-dancing satyr), Barney has worn skirts and evening gowns — in his art and outside of it, like to the opening of the Whitney Biennial in 1993 (left). Barney walked so that Harry Styles and Timothée Chalamet (right) could run.

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