Three of his earliest works, bundled together as the “OTTO Trilogy,” trace what the Gladstone Gallery called “the training, discipline, and physical limits of the body alongside questions of sexual difference and desire.” Centered around former football player Jim Otto, not only is his name a palindrome, but his uniform number “00” suggests the infinity symbol and the concept of doubling while also working as a visual depiction of cellular meiosis—that is, the cell division of gametes, sex cells, in sexually-reproducing organisms. It seems like heady stuff, and it’s true that avant-garde cinema is not for every taste, but there’s an intoxicating compulsion and approachability to Barney’s work. His is the stuff of violent mass spectacle, human achievements on grand architectural and operatic scales, secret societies, and arcane rituals, and how the miracle of it all that creation is just an imperfect, Frankensteinian mirror to the mysterious and overlooked functions of biology.
Barney’s work emerges from tension, the titles of his pieces providing the ends of threads that, once pulled, open him up for contemplation, contextualization, and sometimes dissection. He is known for an ongoing video and photography series called Drawing Restraintwhich describes a line between muscle growth and artistic production; River of Fundament is a three-act opera based on Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings; “Redoubt” employs the voyeurism and punishment myth of Diana and Actaeon in the exploration of what he called “humanity’s place in the natural world”; and now “Secondary,” which dramatizes a fateful American football game in which Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley is paralyzed in 1978 by a violent hit from Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum. Moving between the worlds of fine art and provocation, Barney is probably best known for his epic, eight-year, and five-film project “The Cremaster Cycle” (398 min), undertaken between 1994 and 2002.
Metrograph is hosting a rare screening of all five parts in the order in which they were created, which is not the order in which they are numbered, culminating with an in-person conversation with Barney and frequent collaborator Maggie Nelson. It is the first New York screening of this work since 2015. Barney has vowed there never be a broad home video incarnation.
“The Cremaster Cycle” is named for the muscle in male anatomy primarily responsible for raising and lowering tests in response to temperature. Its most disturbing, and arguably most sophisticated sequence is in the middle of its final and longest installment, “Cremaster 3,” in which its wordless hero, The Entered Apprentice (played by Barney himself), is strapped into a dentist’s chair at the center of the Chrysler Building, partially stripped and forced to ingest the crushed metal sepulcher, a violently-compressed 1938 Chevrolet Imperial, of serial murderer Gary Gilmore. Gilmore is played by Barney in “Cremaster 2” as a being born from a seance, gestated in a fleshy umbilicus stretched between two cars parked at a remote gas station, where the killer murdered attendant Max Jensen (Michael Thompson).