NEW HAVEN — Hawks keen in a bare blue sky in the opening moments of “Redoubt,” Matthew Barney’s sparse paean to the Sawtooth mountain range, the big nature of his Idaho youth. It wouldn’t be Barney if neither blood nor some other bodily fluid was spilled, and quickly; right on cue, there it is: The camera wheels down from on high toward a dark mound drifting in an ocean of blinding snow. As it draws close, the mound reveals itself to be the carcass of a wolf, blood radiating outward from its picked-over ribcage.
“Redoubt,” more than two hours of dialogue-free, loose narrative film now on view at the Yale University Art Gallery, doesn’t stray far from expectation. In it, a US forestry worker, played by the artist himself, tracks three fatigues-clad women carving a fatal swath through the wilderness.
You’d have to read the notes — handily, several hundred pages’ worth accompany “Redoubt” in a tome of essays and images — to know the piece is Barney’s reworking of the Greek myth of Diana and Actaeon, the goddess of the hunt and the hapless hunter who stumbles upon her. Like so much of Barney’s cerebral, lush, and often perplexing oeuvre, such telling details rarely make it to the screen, where the artist’s grand vision unspools in loosely-tied episodes of wordless visual decadence.
This is art, not cinema, and maybe that’s the point. Even so, making the implicit demand that a roomful of people sit still for more than two hours as the piece creeps along seems a bit much (it’s shown in a theater, not a gallery where you can pass in and out). Barney once told me that his relationship to audiences was “a little askew. . . . I don’t really understand what people need.” “Redoubt,” meditative to the point of somnabulance, bears that out. To the opening, a gathering of the New York art world, elite — a hermetically-sealed circle of consensus for Barney’s grandiose visions — I brought a non-art-world friend as my plus-one. I lost count of how many times he discreetly checked his phone to see how much time had passed as the film crept on.
I don’t know that I like Matthew Barney’s work, but I do admire it. Is there another American artist with the same outsize ambitions or epic sweep? Being ambitious, though, is not the same as being great, and this is where things unplug for me. Watching Barney’s films often feels like an endurance test, a war of attrition with my attention span. Visually, his work can be rapturous — and viscerally, uncomfortably so. I can’t remember a Barney film I didn’t want to walk out of, at least for a moment, aching for relief.
Be that as it may, Barney is one of those rare artists who secured his position in contemporary art hierarchy early on and never lost his footing. The New York Times Magazine, in a 1999 cover story, called him “the most important American artist of his generation.” He was 32. I don’t know if it was too much, too soon, but Barney’s work ever since seems to have been an effort, consciously or not, to prove it right.
The declaration was made on the debatable merits of his five-film, seven-plus-hour “Cremaster Cycle,” which he was in the midst of making. It ran loosely — very loosely — along a slim narrative thread pulled from Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song,” a novelized version of the story of serial killer Gary Gilmore. Barney’s celebrity seemed to peak when the last of the series, “Cremaster 3” (they were, of course, made out of sequence) was given a limited theatrical release in 2002. In one memorable scene, the drummer for the death-metal band Slayer pounded out a punishing solo while being enveloped by a swarm of bees. Imagine turning up at the multiplex for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and finding that.
“Cremaster” made Barney famous. It also made him an object of scorn, and his tangled, creepy tales an emblem of the contemporary art world’s excess and disdain for the larger world. With multimillion-dollar budgets, he made Hollywood-scale productions with no particular audience in mind. Alongside them, he made prints and drawings, and sculptures out of Vaseline or metal for a rapt clientele of moneyed collectors eager to own a piece of his blossoming reputation. (“Redoubt” is no different; the upper galleries at Yale are filled with gaudy sculptures of charred tree trunks some 30 feet long, radiating metallic explosions that look like flash-frozen spurts of blood from gunshot wounds).
Myth, or mythic aspiration, is a Barney staple. However you feel about his work, you can’t fault him for a lack of rigor. “Cremaster” explored a dizzying range of deeply American cultish fascinations — Mormons, football, death metal, serial killers — but with a somber, absurd poetic impulse. Barney’s penchant for florid imagery can perplex, but it also transfixes: Even now, 15 years later, I can still see the camera wheel past a Utah mountain range shimmering in the darkness, or a crystalline rodeo ring built on the state’s great salt flats in “Cremaster 3.”
His work has always left me wondering about the slim line between complexity and pretense, and Barney has skirted it as often as not. In “Drawing Restraint 9” (2005), which he made with his then-partner Bjork, a crew of sailors sculpted 25 tons of petroleum jelly — a favorite medium — in the hold of a Japanese whaling ship while his protagonists, slowly, carved off each other’s limbs, morphing from land to sea creatures (maybe on the strength of Bjork’s celebrity, it was his second theatrical release).
In 2014, his ambition, or hubris, appeared to reach apotheosis: “River of Fundament,” a near six-hour saga, swallowed whole Mailer’s novel “Ancient Evenings” — widely seen as his most ambitious, and least successful — and belched it back out in bilious chunks. The ancient Egyptian demi-gods of Mailer’s epic entwine with Mailer himself, each questing for immortality through a cycle of destruction and rebirth that, it so happens, leads through a primordial river of feces running beneath Mailer’s Brooklyn brownstone. Its score, by Barney’s collaborator Jonathan Bepler, is a full-scale opera all on its own.
As a critique of Mailer’s own vanity, it seemed to reflect back harshly on Barney himself: It was exhausting, punishing, visceral, and foul (a stickler for detail, Barney’s titular river flows more thickly than it needed to, to give it credence). At the screening I went to in Detroit — for friends and family, no less — half the audience was gone before the film ended.
“Redoubt,” by comparison, feels almost cathartic, a cosmic reset button for an artist whose ambitions had bloated to an unmanageable scale. The piece is positively restrained, unfurling as it does from a woodsy camp — a tent filled with weapons for the goddess’s hunt — to a ramshackle trailer at a river’s edge.
Barney, as Acteon, lopes into the woods and up sharp, snowy slopes to etch scenes on copper plates; he brings them back to the trailer to be electroplated by an older woman who offers him refuge, a rest. His quest shifts from capturing woody scenes to trying to sketch Diana herself, which almost costs him his life.
It’s near-impossible to extract a story, which for Barney is hardly new. Even so, it’s the most elegant piece he’s ever made. Gone are the prosthetics, the bodily fluids, the bleak fantastical realms and casts of hundreds. Instead, it unspools almost as a pas-de-deux — the elemental world versus the merely human, and the latter’s quixotic urge to capture the ineffable.
It occurs to me, finally, that Barney’s goal, at its core, isn’t all that different from what artists have been doing for centuries: grasping for what can’t be held, something cosmic, unimaginable, larger than ourselves. Every great work of art is a spectacular failure, evidence of a noble, but futile quest. That sounds like Matthew Barney to me.
MATTHEW BARNEY: REDOUBT
At Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven, Conn., through June 16. 203-432-0600, artgallery.yale.edu