Doubting Redoubt

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

Matthew Barney, Redoubt, 2018.

Last Friday evening, Matthew Barney stood in the auditorium of the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) before a 250-person sample of art world glitterati. His exhibition Redoubt had opened that day, and he was to present the world premiere of its eponymous film. Speaking softly and slowly, Barney expressed gratitude for the opportunity to exhibit at his alma mater, where his work could be used to educate rather than profit, as it would in a private gallery. The YUAG is a teaching institution; the film and objects that compose Redoubt instruct — but about what, precisely? And for whom?

Any art exhibit is a choose-your-own-adventure, and Redoubt is a particularly complicated one. The show is comprised of the film, five sculptures, seven copper engravings, 37 electroplated copper plates, and the catalogue. They’re spread throughout the YUAG, from the fourth-floor exhibition space to the auditorium to the bookstore. It’s time-consuming to see everything in Redoubt, but the component parts are strong on their own.

The most effective part of the show is the display in the gallery space itself, which requires the least time commitment of Redoubt’s component parts (the film runs over two hours). There you’ll find a suite of three open white spaces, their walls punctuated by the copper engravings and electroplates and their floors occupied by the sculptures. Seven unique series classify the electroplated copper plates, each with a specific design taken from the Redoubt film. Over the five iterations of each series, Barney increasingly electroplates the image, building up a crust of grainy copper nodules. Given that texture is so integral to the drawings, it’s sad to see them hung for someone Barney’s height (5’10”), where their surfaces are not entirely accessible.

Four large-scale sculptures — gigantic tree trunks which Barney has, seemingly by magic or alchemy, turned to copper and bronze — dominate the floor. After the shock of their monumentality and glitter subsides, the sculptures begin to evoke a quiet wonder. They compel the viewer to look closer — at how their highly naturalistic surfaces are at some points machined, how the trunks fans into a lattice of roots, how one sculpture is draped in metal textiles while another is impaled with copper rods.

Barney began the process of creating his large-scale sculptures by harvesting trees burnt in Sawtooth wildfires and hollowing them as molds for casting. Under his direction, the studio invented a technique to prevent the metals from mixing, allowing them to intertwine in complex networks of organic forms. The pairing of copper and bronze recalls the bichrome rifle bullets used in the film, just as the tree sculptures themselves, laid on polycaprolactone stands or diagonally propped, mimic the guns. Through their weaponization and sense of self-importance, the sculptures subtly reference the dialogue of present-day politics. The 134-minute film further illuminates these references, serving as a visual rhetoric to interpret the exhibit’s otherwise difficult-to-grasp significance.

At the core of the Redoubt film is a requiem for the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, Barney’s home state. Monumental snowdrifts, swimming elk, a billowing avalanche, and similar images of the natural sublime occupy so much screen time that they can’t be read as segues or backdrops. They’re beautiful scenes in and of themselves. This tranquility of looking extends to the film’s ephemera as well, making for many pretty yet pointless moments that demonstrate Barney’s art-for-art’s-sake mantra.

The film is loosely based on the story of Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt, and Actaeon, a hunter punished for trespassing on her while she bathes. Diana is played by Anette Watcher, a sharpshooter with eight US National Team Championships and three NRA National Records, who makes her acting debut in Redoubt. Accompanying her are the Calling Virgin and the Tracking Virgin, played by Eleanor Bauer (who is also the film’s choreographer) and Laura Stokes, respectively. Barney steps into the role of Actaeon, here transposed into a uniformed park ranger with an artmaking habit, appropriately named the Engraver. His character consults the Electroplater, played by K.J. Holmes, at her makeshift trailer-home studio beside a river. Sandra Lamouche, a First Nations Canadian of the Bigstone Cree Nation, rounds out the cast as the Hoop Dancer.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the myth of Diana and Actaeon goes as such: Actaeon happens upon Diana bathing, and for his infraction is turned into a stag that his own hounds subsequently hunt and kill. Redoubt dramatically transposes and reduces this violence by setting Diana on a mythic wolf hunt, one that cites recent Idaho history. During the 20th century, hunting led to the near-extinction of the American wolf population. Years of legislative and public debate culminated in 1995, when 31 wolves were reintroduced into Idaho. Many locals blamed this reintroduction for subsequent livestock depredation; the event remains polarizing to this day.

Barney has also coated the myth in a conceit of his own. By turning Actaeon into an artist (and therefore into an image of himself), he creates art within art. Mise en abyme is a central program: Barney’s camera captures Barney’s hand, which in turn draws Barney’s scene. The electroplated copper plates in the exhibition are copies of those Barney made on-site as the Engraver, digitally scanned and reproduced with a mechanical laser at Two Palms, a SoHo gallery. At the end of the film, as wolves tear apart the Electroplater’s trailer, only the Engraver’s work remains untouched — an explicit reminder of the primacy of Barney’s artistic process.

A redoubt, by definition, is a defensive military fortification or a defense of a threatened social or psychological position. It is this second referent that is most reflected in Barney’s stoic insinuations of modern-day frictions over ecological destruction, the Second Amendment, and indigenous representation. Nowhere, however, does the artist motivate these references. Throughout, particularly in the case of indigenous representation, they leave the viewer disoriented and wary.

Lamouche appears in just one scene. In an American Legion Post, she performs a hoop dance that signifies continuity — constant movement and constant change — as Lamouche herself has written. Her placement, both in the film generally and in the only scene set in a town, goes unexplained. Nothing accounts for the polarity established between her body, contained within a war veterans organization, and Barney’s, which moves freely both inside and outside.

Redoubt gestures to divisive socio-political conflicts of the here-and-now, but Matthew Barney demonstrates no observable purpose in conjuring them. The artist has surely created a visual dreamscape, both on the movie screen and in the gallery space. Without legible intent, however, his exhibition falters. What was it, again, that we were supposed to learn?

Matthew Barney: Redoubt will be open until June 16, with screenings of the film every Saturday at 1:30 pm. The exhibit was curated by Pamela Franks, Class of 1956 Director, Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Mass., and former Senior Deputy Director and Seymour H. Knox, Jr., Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Yale University Art Gallery.

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