Review | Matthew Barney: Redoubt
Review | Matthew Barney: Redoubt
Yale University Art Gallery
Through June 16, 2019
During the climax of Matthew Barney’s feature-length film, Redoubt, a pack of wolves enter the trailer where the artist’s engravings are processed by a svelte and spiritual woman. In earlier scenes, she dips copper plates into baths of acids while Barney (officially cast as “the Engraver”) sits at a table wordlessly sipping whiskey. As the wolves ravage the trailer’s interior, their methodical destruction seems motivated less out of violence than bored curiosity. (Violence can’t always be commanded in the natural world.) Meanwhile, the woman with the cropped white hair performs a series of slow, choreographed movements outside under the brilliant light of a full moon. Barney is nowhere to be seen. This pack of wolves, the full moon, an older, female assistant with the powers to manifest the visions of the absent artist she serves—there are aspects of Barney’s new film and his eponymous exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery that tap into trite tropes of the natural world and the mysterious shroud of artistic creation.
Redoubt’s narrative follows the myth of Diana and the hunter, Actaeon. As relayed by the poet, Ovid, in his Metamorphosis, the hunter spies Diana bathing after a hunt. She catches him, and consequently, turns him into a deer that is torn apart by his own hunting dogs. No such fate meets Barney’s character in Redoubt. At worst, some of his engravings get damaged by the wolves or are, alternately, grazed or hit by bullets shot by Anette Wachter, who plays Barney’s interpretation of Diana. Wachter is not an actor; she’s a longtime member of the U.S. National Rifle team and gun advocate. In an interview on the NRA website, Wachter was asked why she owns a gun and she replied: “Love them.”
Barney’s decision to cast Wachter as Diana might come off as an endorsement. Could he not have picked anyone to play this role? Maggie Gyllenhaal and Paul Giamatti have starring roles in his previous film, River of Fundament. A representation from Barney’s studio told Artnews that chief among the skills required for this role was sharpshooting. Still, I wondered if this choice, considering its subtext, felt brazenly misguided, as if Barney believed he’d sidestep the current charge of gun control in this country or perhaps, grab gleefully at them with his leading lady.
In fact, the strength of the film are its women, including Wachter’s precision shooting. The place where Barney seemingly exercised the lightest touch—the choreography—is the most riveting. The film opens with aerial acrobatics performed by two nymphs. Later, Diana is accompanied by the same two characters. Their erratic movements, devised by Eleanor Bauer (one of the goddess’s companion), allow them to embody the wildness of the landscape, caught in the dazzling cinematography. In a separate scene, Sandra Lamouche of the Bigstone Cree Nation performs an elaborate hoop dance. This dance scene and the unpredictable movements throughout the film eclipse the other works on view—namely, Barney’s copper engravings and electroplated creations.
Viewers can see these works and others on the fourth floor of the gallery inside the exhibition. Imagery from the film and allusions to the plot are recreated—sometimes very literally—inside their compositions. At first glance, this massive show impresses: all the walls are covered with glowing engravings. Copper and brass abound. Barney’s pinkish-orange plates bring warmth to the space and tie into the geographic origins of the film’s myth. Copper was one of the first metals discovered by ancient Greeks and Romans and has a starring presence in their cultural artifacts.
Many of Barney’s engravings contain the medium’s characteristic delicate line work that are a delightful contrast to the show’s more brutish overtones of hunting and artistic creation—Barney’s brand of which has an egomaniacal inflection. Some of these works appear in the film, so viewers who endured the six hunting scenes spread over two hours are rewarded for recognizing them among the plenitude of works included in the show. In places, the drawing is sensitive and beautiful, yet the sheer volume of these works overwhelms. The show, taken as a whole, suffers. The technical achievements of these works would have shone more brightly on a smaller scale. This quantity appears to cater to the hopeful appetite of the art market, rather than the needs of the thoughtful viewer.
These works follow a simple formula: opulence begets opulence, right? Less expensive than silver or gold, copper is relatively cheap, but its softness can make it challenging to manipulate. The grandeur of this exhibition results from its materials plus the unique processes that are employed. Several works are electroplated, a process that uses an electric current to make the surfaces of the plates grow furry with metal nodules. If nothing else, the show offers viewers a glimpse of the technical possibilities of copper and brass.
Four large sculptures demonstrate another tricky technique: casting. Replicated from charred trees taken from Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountain range where the film was shot, the gnarled root structures and sagging bark skins of the trees—forever fixed in metal—become a memento mori. The crossed, protruding trees of Two Virgins (2018), displaced from their natural environments, poke at the pervasive ecological anxieties of our time and maybe even the true crux of the exhibition: the artist’s growing feelings of mortality—or, more bluntly, his fading fecundity.
Throughout the film, Barney’s character is invulnerable in a way that alienates him from viewers. His efforts to find Diana are stalkerish, his drawing can appear dainty by comparison with his earlier works, still the Engraver evades death despite Diana’s facility. Barney departs from the myth to save himself. Does Diana take mercy on him?
The provocative tone of Barney’s prior works disappears inside this exhibition. In its place, the technical mastery feels self-congratulatory. The show’s title, referring to an extremist “return to the land” movement that has taken root near where the film was shot, encompasses another isolationist world—the sliver where affluence and artists agreeably overlap—where Barney resides.
Matthew Barney: Redoubt continues through June 16.
Another review of this exhibition by the author will be published in the forthcoming issue of the Art New England magazine.