Matthew Barney at MOCA

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After seeing Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2002, I wasn't sure the artist could ever again match his own superior level of ambition and vision. Yet River of Fundament, organized by Haus der Kunst, Munich, and on view at MOCA through January 18, 2016, is all that and more. It is the manifestation of a mature and assured artist unreservedly exploring mythologies, transformations of flesh and spirit, the drive for dominance and transcendence, and questions of ancient past and unknowable present. And poop.

Installation view of "Matthew Barney: River of Fundament"
at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA
Photo by Fredrik Nilsen

The dozens of wildly original sculptures and wall-works in the exhibition all evolved out of the past seven years of his work on a three-act, nearly six-hour filmic opera made with composer Jonathan Bepler. MOCA has built a small theater within the Geffen for daily screenings and visitors to the show are given two tickets in case they want to return to see more or all of the film at a later date. The film and exhibition are based loosely on Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings, his controversial 1983 novel set in ancient Egypt. Critic Harold Bloom referred to that book as an “extravagant invention.” One could say that same for Barney's outrageous re-interpretation.

Thanks to Barney's long history with Regen Projects, his work has been shown in LA regularly since 1991 when the artist first began gaining attention for sculpture using aspects of athletic equipment based on his years as a football player at Yale. The film River of Fundament was shot in Detroit, New York and LA. It was here that I saw his 2008 performance REN, where a 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperial was dramatically destroyed on the lot of an abandoned car dealership. But what does the demolition of old muscle cars have to do with the Egyptian gods Isis, Osiris and the afterlife?

Matthew Barney, "REN: Pentastar Suite," 2008
Graphite and lapis lazuli on paper in five polyethylene frames
Joe and Marie Donnelly

This is where an artist of Barney's caliber constructs unlikely yet rewarding coalitions of meaning. Far from being an arbitrary exercise, the exhibition demonstrates how exacting is Barney's attention to the smallest detail. The improbable, circuitous, gross or disgusting aspects of his film are transmogrified as noble objects and sublime imagery. The artist hopes that viewers will watch his filmic opera from start to finish to fully experience the substance of his exhibition yet the work also stands on its own.

Installation view of "Matthew Barney: River of Fundament"
at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA
Photo by Fredrik Nilsen

The Geffen is an ideal platform for Barney's huge bronze sculptures, some of them based on carcasses of old cars, some evolved from elements used in the film and the most recent cast by pouring the molten metal into a pit of water and clay freezing the explosive effect of splashing chaos. The walls are lined with modestly scaled etchings on bronze and drawings in lapis lazuli. The symbolic and alchemical meanings of the materials are essential yet each is a refined grace note in the larger orchestration of layered meaning. (Additional water castings and bronze etchings are on view at Regen Projects through October 24.)

Matthew Barney, "KHU: Boat of Ra," 2009
Graphite, ink and gold leaf on paper in polyethylene frames
Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery

The pristine white walls of the Geffen are marred by a rough charcoal line running horizontally, remnant of Barney's Drawing Restraint, whereby a female football team outfitted in scanty but effective black padding shoved and dragged his massive cubic sculpture around the perimeter of the museum allowing the edge to leave its mark. (A video is on view in the MOCA reading room.)

This is not Barney's first work with Mailer. He played the part of Harry Houdini in Cremaster 2, which was loosely based on the author's book about killer Gary Gilmour, The Executioner's Song. When Bloom concluded his review of Ancient Evenings, he wrote that the Mailer's “later works thus strain at the limits of art.” The same could be said of Barney's River of Fundament.

Matthew Barney, "Imperial Mask," 2008-13
Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery

With this exhibition, MOCA is back on course and part of that involves the screening of another film, Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art. The premiere is 8pm on September 29 at the Ace Hotel downtown and the $20 tickets are a benefit for MOCA. There will be a Q&A with MOCA director Philippe Vergne and filmmaker James Crump, who previously made the critically praised Black, White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe.