I’d like to think that I’m more sophisticated than most, especially when it comes to art. I can “get it,” or at least a large part of it, whether it’s a burlesque show, graffiti, or a blockbuster at the Met. But I was stumped when I saw the sculptures by Matthew Barney on display now at Barbara Gladstone. They’re metal and plastic forms cast from craters and cars during a staging of Barney’s opera DJED in Detroit earlier this year. That performance was inspired by Normal Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings, which is set in Egypt. It all makes for rich, referential baggage, bit doesn’t seem relevant to the objects at hand. My first thought when I entered the gallery, and I’m not proud of it, was, “This is ugly.”
The forms have an indelible physical presence. The low, dark mounds of copper and lead in the main gallery are unrecognizable as metals, powerfully earth-like. You almost expect them to give off a smell. The pieces with cast car parts in them look as if they’re the remains of an explosion, and bring to mind the material devastation of the wars we’re involved in now overseas. (Maybe Barney can read “The Naked and the Dead” next.) But the artworks still slipped out of reach. One of the smaller pieces (Secret Name, above) inspired special panic. What was it? The friend I was with, a painter-turned-architect, explained it as a composition of opposing spirits, with the low, wax-like form setting off the higher dark volume behind. But I wanted the piece to be more representational. I sensed that the work was substantial, and knew that I was missing it.