Sofa kingdom

The Contemporary British Painters exhibit soothes the critic's savage breast

This young king of New York's conceptual art scene and his main rep in Manhattan, Barbara Gladstone, are mighty stingy with his pieces, unlike many artists who promote themselves toward a fast and final burnout. Barney, however, realizes the power and mystery of the unobtainable. Still, everything I've read and heard about him points to his tapping into universal questions of identity, gender, and the transcendence of these ideas via conflict. So when I received an invite to attend an official screening of one of his films in Austin--part of his ongoing Cremaster series--I jumped into my Civic and sped south.

Was it worth the tank of gas? Well, sure--in the same way that consummating a crush is sometimes the only way to get over it. Barney offers his viewers a sumptuous, gyrating thing of fairy tale proportions and Freudian pinpricks. While I drove south on Interstate 35 with anxious expectation, I started to wonder whether I'd leave his imaginary world somewhat disappointed.

Self-indulgent is a wonderful description for many artists, and in limited doses, can be a wonderful way to get out of your own head into someone else's, a way to tweak your stale perspective. Only, give that artist a massive budget, an hour's worth of 35-mm film, and open season on his own compulsions--and you've got a recipe for tedium. Think Peter Greenaway on a lonely weekend bender, and you've got the idea.

"Cremaster 5" (the cremaster is the body's interior muscle, which extends and contracts the testicles in relation to body temperature) was shot primarily in gothic-tinged Budapest in 1997. Its three-tier, zero-dialogue narrative intertwines the libretto of an opera-house diva, a Houdini-like magician, and a Neptune-like water giant with gonads for feet. The three spectacles play off one another: the diva is remembering her affair with the ill-fated escape artist, and underneath her baroque and swirling opera house unfolds a type of Turkish bath-sexual netherworld involving the sea giant and his harem of water sprites. The giant, like the magician and diva, finds final release, not through music or death, but through the sprites' capture of his, well, mutated genitalia. (This involves a flock of Jacobean doves and such, but let's not digress.) Underwater scenes, cavernous architecture, plenty of complex prosthetics and costumes, and a modern classical score by a friend of the artist lend the whole an intensely coded, dreamlike aura.

Fascinating, sure, but also repetitive and static (a semi-successful attempt to transfer the spirit of sculpture and painting to film), symbolically obtuse (a semi-successful way of forcing you, the attention-deficit viewer, to concentrate), and a clunky narrative (not surprising from an artist who isn't used to telling stories).

Sitting in the dark, three hours from home in the University of Texas Union Theater with a slew of other starving Barney followers, and I start wondering about whether I turned off my gas heater in my apartment, about whether I parked my car in a loading zone. When it ended, I didn't stick around for the group discussion--I couldn't stomach the idea of a bunch of college art students earnestly dissecting a film so dense and esoteric.

Barney is to be admired for finding a new way to use media, pushing film boundaries with assertive aplomb. Take away plot and add intimate meaning, take away conventional symbols and create new, unnerving ones. Barney's film didn't let me down, but it wasn't the soul-searching experience I was hoping for. Hunt the animal too long, and the kill is bound to be anti-climactic.

Probably not Barney's fault. When he makes a rare appearance in Houston this summer to lecture at the Glassell School and show more of his work, I'll be there. Hoping his stuff speaks to me the way the descriptions of his stuff have spoken to me for years--hoping that the second kill's the charm.

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