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The cycle begins

Matthew Barney's surreal Cremaster Cycle is defiantly avant-garde


Matthew Barney made his 1991 art world debut by scaling the ceiling of a New York art gallery in the nude, leaving a slime trail of Vaseline behind him. That notorious beginning was, it turned out, just a taste of the outrageousness to come.

Barney has since crafted his interests in biology, athleticism, sex and masculinity into an idiosyncratic vision defined by an over-the-top, audacious series of five films, the Cremaster Cycle.

These epics take their title from the male "cremaster" muscle, which controls testicular contractions in response to stimuli like temperature or fear. Though the "cremaster" function may sound a tad obscure, there is no missing the explicitly reproductive visual language that defines Barney's films. Characters struggle through white-walled, slimy birth canals, and symbols of vaginas and testicles are so prolific, they could make a psychoanalyst woozy.

Barney's signature, often repulsive visuals, featuring plentiful bodily fluids and freakish flesh prosthetics, make director David Cronenberg's films look almost repressed. Much of their ick factor is undoubtedly due to the in-between whatsit? quality of many of Barney's creatures, courtesy of special makeup effects guy Gabe Bartalos, who also labored on low-budget gross-out horror like Frankenhooker and Brain Damage. Barney ironically counters his organic ooey-goo with retro icons like the art deco Chrysler building, the Goodyear blimp, women in snoods and garter belts, Busby Berkeley chorus girls and Esther Williams pool spectaculars. Such odd visual collisions make Barney's world both familiar and disconcertingly alien.

Intensifying that surreal blend of the familiar and the weird, the Cremaster films even have their own star system, albeit a wacky one, featuring fetish models, sculptor Richard Serra, James Bond movie queen Ursula Andress, author Norman Mailer, the New York punk bands Agnostic Front and Murphy's Law, Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, and double amputee Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins.

The Cremaster films are defiantly avant-garde in a film culture that seems to have entirely forgotten the value of experimental filmmaking. They refuse to subscribe to narrative storylines. Instead, they provide direct feeds into Barney's uniquely freakish vocabulary of human reproduction and an iconic ooze suggesting, alternately, semen, sweat, discharge or mucus, formed from copious quantities of Vaseline, which has become the artist's preferred medium.

All five Cremaster works will be shown at Atlanta's Landmark Theatres Midtown Art Cinema, giving viewers a chance to consider the shared bizarre motifs that link Barney's body of work and have made him one of the most talked about, celebrated artists working today.

Cremaster 1 (1995)

Cremaster 1 is an homage to the mysterious biology of the feminine shot in pearly pinks and whites. Like almost all of his films, Cremaster 1 features one of Barney's creatures -- the elegantly turned out Marti Domination -- trapped within a womb-like world-within-a-world, in this case, the Goodyear Blimp. While Domination hovers in her hive-like lair, defined by vagina-like openings and symbolic ovum, perkily smiling chorus girls move in Busby Berkeley-style arrangements on a cobalt football field down below.Cremaster 2 (1999)

The talkiest of the Cremaster cycle, this elliptical tale centers on murderer Gary Gilmore, subject of Norman Mailer's novel The Executioner's Song. The film interweaves another return-to-the-womb saga, as Gilmore incubates in the dark interior of a vintage Mustang like evil waiting to hatch. A death metal dirge of masculinity's destructive potential, this visually intoxicating Cremaster marries Mormons, Gilmore, Houdini and heavy metal. In the process, it makes the actions of its human beings seem as governed by mysterious, instinctual forces as the swarms of bees that become disturbingly analogous to the strange patterns and rituals of human violence and copulation. (Cremasters 1 & 2 screen in a 119-minute program.)

Cremaster 3 (2002)

This most recent Cremaster is like some symbolic, humor-laden showdown between an archetypal masculinity expressed by ballsy metal sculptor Richard Serra, Barney as a kilt-wearing strong man and two hardcore punk bands, Agnostic Front and Murphy's Law. In this Cremaster, Barney seems even more self-consciously epic: Employing the Guggenheim Museum and the Chrysler building as backdrops and a luscious color scheme of eye-popping blues, pinks and greens, he ends his series on a triumphantly over-the-top note. (182 minutes)

Cremaster 4 (1994)

Though this first Cremaster inaugurated the hallucinatory Barney oeuvre, it leaves the weakest impression in the series. Nevertheless, its imagery is some of the most memorable in the Cremaster cycle, with Barney transformed into a flame-haired, porcine satyr and Vaudevillian hoofer who dances a hole into the universe and eventually struggles through a white tunnel to a symbolic rebirth.

Cremaster 5 (1997)

The most romantic, moving and operatic of Barney's films, this funereal, gothic love story filmed in wintery Budapest concerns a Queen of Chain (Ursula Andress) singing plaintively to a lover played by Barney. As in so many of his films, Cremaster 5 separates the world into two domains, one above earth, and one underground with associations to the watery wombs we all emerge from. (Cremasters 4 & 5 screen in a 97-minute program.)

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