The subject of a major museum exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as a gallery show of new works at Regen Projects, New York-based artist Matthew Barney is a formidable presence in southern California at the moment. On view at MOCA through Jan. 18, 2016, “Matthew Barney: River of Fundament” features some 85 works, including a number of new sculptures. The show was first organized by curator Okwui Enwezor for Munich’s Haus der Kunst, where it debuted last year. Barney’s first major museum exhibition in Los Angeles, the show primarily contains sculptures and works on paper related to the artist’s epic (five-hour-plus) film, River of Fundament. Coinciding with the exhibition, the film is being screened at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.
Barney centered the film around three performances loosely based on Egyptian mythology and Norman Mailer’s period novel of 1983, Ancient Evenings. Accompanied by music and ambient sounds created by longtime Barney collaborator Jonathan Bepler, the film documents the performances, one of which unfolds in the streets of Los Angeles, where antique cars are being paraded around in ritualized ceremonies. In Barney’s metaphorical language, the cars are stand-ins for the soul. In another segment, shot in Detroit, cars are melted down in a foundry during a rainstorm. The molten metal is recast in earthen pits, resulting in the outlandish sculptures that make up the core of the exhibition “River of Fundament.”
For the Los Angeles show, coordinated by MOCA assistant curator Lanka Tattersall, Barney added a new group of bronzes from the series “Water Castings,” using a novel technique of pouring molten bronze into open pits filled with clay silt and water. The bronze displaces the water and fills the recesses of the silt in wildly varied, unpredictable organic shapes resembling strange plants or trees. Eight of the large “Water Castings” sculptures appear in the MOCA exhibition, while the other six are the focus of Barney’s Regen Projects show, on view through October 24.
“The total number of “Water Castings” sculptures, fourteen, has a special significance in Egyptian mythology, and in ‘River of Fundament’,” Tattersall told A.i.A. “According to some versions of the myth, Osiris gets chopped up into 14 pieces, and the parts are scattered. So with the works sited in two separate locations across town, there is also a sense of Barney geographically engaging the entire city of Los Angeles.”
The exhibition has special significance for L.A. in a number of other ways. “Aside from the city’s history as a film center, and its pervasive car culture,” Tattersall commented, “the film, as well as the entire exhibition, is pertinent to the Los Angeles River. Barney features the now-dry river in the opening scenes of River of Fundament, and he often uses the motif of a river in his work to suggest an existential relationship with the environment.”
Regen Projects owner Shaun Caley Regen added that Barney’s shows at the gallery and at MOCA happen to coincide with the Hellenistic bronze sculpture show, “Power and Pathos,” at the Getty. Together, the shows “combine to make a rich dialogue about the past, present, and future of sculpture,” she said. Referring to the “Water Castings,” she remarked, “It’s as though he has reinvented bronze as a material—and pushed that material to its limits.”