American artist Matthew Barney opens a groundbreaking exhibition at the mythical Schaulager in Basel. Barney’s fame as a brilliant and bizarre artist is confirmed in the collection jointly acquired by New York Museum of Modern Art and Schaulager that forms the crux of the exhibition. Renaissance masterpieces as well as two new pieces by Barney complete the show.

Matthew Barney, DRAWING RESTRAINT 15, 2007, Documentary Photograph © Matthew Barney, Photo: Neville Wakefield

Hailed by the New York Times as “the most important American artist of his generation”, Matthew Barney (b. 1967), the Yale football star turned darling of the international art scene, inaugurates an exhibition in Basel that is ambitious, sophisticated and puzzling.

“Prayer Sheet with the Wound and the Nail” until October 2010 captures the evolution of the artist through his 16 Drawing Restraint performances dating from 1988, when he was still at Yale, to 2007 at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

Drawing Restraint is the process by which Barney obstructs his own artistic production through physical or psychological restraints, like ramps, elastic belts, trampolines or, on a grander scale, limousine cars and Japanese whale fleets.

Matthew Barney, DRAWING RESTRAINT 2, 1988, Documentary Photograph © Matthew Barney, Photo: Michael Rees

The sculptures, drawings, vitrines and videos arising from the performances form the Drawing Restraint archives recently acquired by Schaulager’s supporting body, the Laurenz Foundation, together with the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

“But what was originally a joint celebration of the acquisition has ended up being much more than that,” says Neville Wakefield, who was invited to curate the show.

Wakefield has pushed the Schaulager credo “to present challenging art in challenging circumstances” one step further by including renowned works by Renaissance masters of northern Europe, some of them more than 400 years old and most of them with a religious connotation.

“I wanted to relate Matthew Barney’s work to the Christian narrative because they share the theme of breakdown and regeneration,” Wakefield explains.

The main floor has been laid out in the form of a basilica, with “four cabinets that correspond to the columns of a church, surrounded by 12 drawings that, as it were, symbolize the 12 stations,” he elaborates.

The Drawing Restraints are exposed in dialogue with woodcuts, etchings and drawings of Christian iconography by the absolute masters of the northern Renaissance, Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Dürer, Urs Graf, Hans Baldung (called Grien).

Matthew Barney, ENVELOPA: DRAWING RESTRAINT 7 (Guillotine), 1993 (detail), Color photo in Nylon frame © Matthew Barney

The effect is somewhat terrifying, with so many allegorical references to death, mixing in with Barney’s emasculated satyrs.

But it is also clearly successful in illustrating Barney’s obsessions and his belief that death”“returns us to the condition from which we started, but also to its potential”, which Wakefield says is the theme of the show.

“As an athlete, I was interested in the process by which lactic acid breaks down muscle tissue so it will rebuild itself stronger,” Barney explains.

His career in league football permeates his work as an artist in many more ways.

“I started using the materials that I knew best, that were already a part of me,” he says of the foam plastic prosthetics and petroleum jelly used by footballers.


Barney’s sculpture Cetacea, 2005, cast polycaprolactone thermoplastic, self-lubricating plastic, vivac

He also set up his art facility as a place to “practice and rehearse”.

“From my experience in football, I tend to think in plans with regard to movement,” Barney says of the skills he was able to transpose into his video and film making.

Drawing Restraint No 9 is a full-length film that he made with his life partner and mother of his daughter, the Icelandic pop pixie, Bjork. A New York Times article gives a wonderful account of their collaboration.

“This is the first time I have been curated this way,” Barney says of the Schaulager exhibition.

“At first I was intimidated by Neville’s proposal, but then I realized that it was useful as a way for me to make new work: Neville has made a site-specific exhibition and I have made site-specific works.”

Matthew Barney with rock-climber Emily Harrington, star of DR17, seen in reflection of Schaulager as site-relted film is about to begin, 9 June 2010

Drawing Restraint No. 17 and No. 18 are Barney’s two new creations. No. 18 is the result of a drawing performed on the “altarpiece of the basilica-inspired floor plan” by jumping from a “cannibalized trampoline” propped up at a dangerous angle.

The length of the marks “record the downward falls”.

But the highlight of the exhibition is considered to be Restraint No. 17, a film that is projected on the outside frontispiece of the Schaulager.

The Schaulager, which means “viewing warehouse”, was designed by celebrity architects Herzog and de Meuron in the southern outskirts of Basel to house art collections, including the world-famous Emmanuelle Hoffman art collection, in exemplary conditions.

From the back it resembles a giant Weetabix, but on the front, two giant screens that break the striking angles project Barney’s new film.

A rock-climbing angel, complete with a fall into the entrails of the Schaulager and through one of the sculptures on display, is mesmerizing, highly symbolic and incredibly beautiful.

For the first time Barney is not the actor of his own performances and for once we are allowed to discover his unsuspected poetry.

Matthew Barney, Drawing Restraint 17, 2010, Production Still © Matthew Barney, Photo: Hugo Glendinning

The entire show was put together in less than five months, says Wakefield. “This would never have been possible anywhere else,” he says with admiration for the small Schaulager team. It opened just in time for the Basel Art Fair of which it is not a part, but to which it adds an additional must for visitors.

Further information: www.schaulager.org

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, trained as a journalist, became an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London before moving to Switzerland, where she now covers the art beat and presides several associations.

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