Art: Let's Just Say It's Not Whistler's Mother

Dispatches, May 1997

Art: Let's Just Say It's Not Whistler's Mother

By Peter Von Ziegesar

"You can compare his work to the grueling physicality of climbing a mountain or negotiating a whitewater stream," enthuses Robert Riley, curator of media arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Yes, but some would also call it mildly perverse. Riley is talking about 30-year-old ex-Yalie-quarterback-cum-artist-provocateur Matthew Barney, whose work — for which he recently won a coveted $50,000 Hugo Boss Award for artists — probes the, ahem, masculinity and sexual ambiguities of sport. In other words, he too is mocking us.

Consider, if you dare, the performance-art piece that established Barney's rep with the Manhattan art set. In "The Flight of the Anal Sadistic Warrior," Barney clipped into his carabiners and climbed the ceiling of a gallery buck naked, culminating with — well, there's really no delicate way to put this — the insertion of an ice screw into his tuchus.

To be sure, climbing naked is said to be a popular pastime in many parts of the country. But is Barney's work going to change the way we look at outdoor sport? Though the seemingly immodest artist declined to be interviewed by Outside, Barney — whose latest offering, the as-yet-under-wraps "Cremaster 5," is set to debut next month in Frankfurt — has plenty of admirers to do his explaining for him. "He has an incredible knowledge of how the body functions," says Riley. "And it's certainly clear that there's a connection between anal sadism and creativity."

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