NEW YORK, April 3 (UPI) -- To visit Matthew Barney's exhibition of films and film-related art at the Guggenheim Museum is to step into this American artist's surreal world of erotic myth and esoteric symbolism that recalls the narrative extravagances of Richard Wagner's operatic "Ring Cycle."
Barney has given the title "The Cremaster Cycle" to his series of five films and the Guggenheim show inspired by them. The cremaster is a male muscle that controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli, and the artist makes many allusions to the role it plays in the human embryonic process of sexual differentiation.
But don't let that scare you away from the show before it closes June 11. Barney has designed the exhibition, and it's unique -- transforming the soaring interior of the Guggenheim into a white plastic-upholstered fantasy world irrigated by rivulets of Vaseline and other gelatinous substances heretofore overlooked as artist's materials.
But Barney, a 36-year-old native of Boise, Idaho, is no ordinary artist. He is fundamentally an unusually imaginative filmmaker, which can be attested by anyone with the time to view all 10 hours of his 35-mm "Cremaster" films, made from 1992 to 2002, screened together at the Guggenheim for the first time ever.
In addition to that, Barney is an artist of rare creativity, working with a whole range of synthetic materials as well as stainless steel, marble, cement, fabrics, and lubricants, especially petroleum jelly.
The show came to New York by way of Cologne and Paris where it attracted a particularly young audience, just as it is doing at the Guggenheim. No doubt about it, Barney is the art star of choice for those who are looking for a fresh experience in the establishment setting of a museum, even one that prides itself on being avant-garde. And he's doing well in the art market, too.
Already, Barney's art is edging toward the $500,000 level for a DVD copy of one of his films issued in a limited edition of 10 accompanied by some small-scale related art objects. Drawings are bringing up to $40,000 and photographs range from $10,000 up to $70,000. The 14,000 first-run printing of the catalog of the Guggenheim show, priced at $65, sold out before the show opened.
Prepare to be in a chronic state of wonderment as you climb the Guggenheim's spiraling ramp to just below the dome where a five-channel video device continuously displays film clips from Barney's cycle. In addition to displays in the bays of the ramp, there are several offshoot gallery areas exhibiting sculptures, some of them massive, delicate drawings, color photographs, and installations, all embodying the films' contents.
Layers of cultural references that run through all the films soon become evident to the viewer in what might be described as image overload, especially the plethora of photographs of nude androgynous "faeries" in red wigs.
Symbols of the Masonic Lodge keep reappearing in depictions of the fraternal secret society's lambskin apron and silver objects, including a mason's trowel. Hiram Abiff, the builder of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem according to Masonic myth, makes his appearance as the architect of the Chrysler Building in New York, a role played by controversial artist Richard Serra, and Barney himself plays an antagonistic apprentice who kills Abiff.
Other protagonists are double murderer Gary Gilmore (played by Barney) and Gilmore's reputed grandfather, escape artist Harry Houdini (played by novelist Norman Mailer), a cheetah woman (played by paraplegic fashion model Aimee Mullins). Actress Ursula Andress and drummer Dave Lomardo also have roles.
Gilmore's imaginary trial in the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City opens the door to generous allusions to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Also touched on are the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Budapest Opera House, Goodyear blimps, the Isle of Man and its Tourist Trophy motorcycle race, the Chrysler Building's Cloud Club, Chrysler Imperials, Bronco Stadium in Boise, and a Rockettes-like chorus line dressed as Playboy bunnies.
Several rites of the Masonic Lodge are staged in the guise of a game called "The Order" in which Barney as The Apprentice, costumed as a kilted Scottish grenadier as a reference to Scottish Rite Masonry, must overcome obstacles on each level of the museum's ramp.
Along the ramp are strewn mostly white sculptures made of self-lubricating plastics, thermoplastic, prosthetic plastic, polyethylene, polyurethane, and Pyrex. They are in the form of animal corpses, gonads, a grand piano, potatoes, artificial human limbs, crutches, and a lunch counter complete with drop seats.
There are references to bees and honeycombs, but the only live exhibit consists of several black-and-white Jacobin pigeons that also appear in one of the Cremaster films. But this show shouldn't be shrugged off as "strictly for the birds." It may well be the wave of the future, a new kind of exhibition that turns an entire museum into a personal universe of bewildering beauty.