Shame on you if you missed Matthew Barney’s Secondary, his show at his studio in Long Island City, which closed earlier this summer. Its centerpiece was a film of the same name, the ostensible subject of which is a professional football game on August 12, 1978, where Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders delivered an open-field hit on Darryl Stingley of the New England Patriots that left Stingley paralyzed. But the ambitious, hypnotic piece mined American culture, Barney’s own biography and, literally, the floor of his studio to create a work that made all his old themes feel fresh once again. It was as if he was welcoming us to a future he had predicted all the way back in the 1990s.
If you live in Los Angeles, though, you do have a chance to see Barney’s REPRESSIA (decline) from 1991, which was recently installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, having been acquired by the institution in 2019. This disorienting room-sized work is part gym, part studio and part sex dungeon. The sculptural components include a fleshy pink wrestling mat, tube socks, petroleum jelly and a speculum. This installation can be considered first and foremost a canvas for the multidisciplinary Barney’s performance and films.
Two such films made inside this structure, Radial Drill and Blind Perineum, are on display at LACMA. The films are necessary to understand the work’s greater significance. Performance art can often feel like some kind of arcane ritual but Barney’s work in particular is aimed at charging sculptures like REPRESSIA with a certain kind of magic. Blind Perineum sees the artist, a former football player, using his body to scale the structure while restrained by weird carabiner setups. He looks like someone at the climbing gym who has outsourced his limbs to remote control by nefarious forces. “That’s it,” reads one Letterboxd review of the film, “I’m done trying to follow along with these workout tapes.”
Barney is a master of gesamtkunstwerk, and if you see his physical works outside of the context of his films, it can feel like you’re missing something. But for me, that’s not an unpleasant sensation. Mystery and conspiracy are important components of the overall project, so if you stumble upon one of his props, say at auction, they’re still fun to consume as puzzle pieces that force you to imagine the very strange larger picture they’re a part of. You feel a little like a detective or, if you visit LACMA to see this early work, perhaps an archaeologist.
Barney’s been having a moment lately. This past spring, Metrograph showed all the Cremaster movies, which are of course named for the muscle that controls the testicles. These not only hold up but also feel like they were made at the same time as Secondary. Nobody seems to know what to do with men at this moment. Through his new work and his old work, Barney reminds us that he’s been probing their brutish depths for some time.
Matthew Barney: REPRESSIA (decline) is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through January 7, 2024.