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By the time I had heard enough about artist and filmmaker Matthew Barney to be intrigued by his work, I had missed the chance to see it (Barney is notorious for not allowing his movies to be released on DVD.) So when Drawing Restraint 9 came to theaters, I jumped at the chance.

I liked the movie, although I’m not sure I explained it well in my review. What I was missing was some background on Barney and his work. I found those missing pieces in Matthew Barney: No Restraint, an essential companion piece for anyone who feels like they didn’t quite get Drawing Restraint 9.

Mysteries Explained

Barney wears the garb of an artist
Barney wears the garb of an artist

Artists can often be coy about their work. Ask an artist what he meant by a certain motif, and he may shoot back: “What did you make of it?” So it is very refreshing to hear Barney, on-camera, casually explaining what the shape that permeates Drawing Restraint 9 means to him. (There’s no Da Vinci Code at work: it’s just a shape “restrained” by another shape; and in the movie, the restraining shape always gets pulled away.)

It turns out that Drawing Restraint 9 is actually a pretty straightforward movie. It needs no secret decoder. It really is about whaling, about mankind’s connection to whales, about celebrating petroleum products, about Japanese ceremonies, and about that one shape. If any of us didn’t “get” the movie, it’s only because we were looking for something that wasn’t there.

The value of Matthew Barney: No Restraint, then, is not that it “explains” Drawing Restraint 9. The value is that it explains Matthew Barney.

Vaseline and Restraints

Barney attended Yale in the late 1980s, where he had many paths open to him. He was a professional model; the documentary shows magazine ads with his recognizable smile. Barney’s father explains that Matt had contemplated a degree in medicine. He wanted to go into plastic surgery. A solid athlete, he could have also pursued a career in football. One of the oddest clips in Matthew Barney: No Restraint is of “Matt Barney” throwing a touchdown pass with an admiring sportscaster calling the play. (This clip is followed shortly by one of Barney’s early works that smacks of a young artist trying to provoke: video footage shows a man (Barney?) on all fours facing away from the camera, pearly dildo in ass; cut to grinning pearly smile.)

Art critics and gallery owners help to explain Barney’s early career in art. He was offered a big commission even before he graduated from college. His commission, by the way, was a sculpture coated in Vaseline. (Barney’s father proudly shows one of the first works Barney created, still coated in the original Vaseline from 17 years ago.)

The talking heads also explain that Barney brought his own athleticism to his work. His first Drawing Restraint work involved him trying to make marks on a paper placed near the ceiling while heavy elastic bands tried to keep him from reaching the paper. The effort in creating the art, was the art. The other works in the Drawing Restraint series are also about overcoming obstacles and restraints in order to create the objet d’art. (So the “9” from the title of Drawing Restraint 9 really is a serial number.)

Portrait of the Artist

You can look at Matthew Barney: No Restraint as a documentary movie, or you can use it as the basis for a conversation about Barney himself.

As a documentary, Matthew Barney: No Restraint joins other docs-on-artists like The Mystery of Picasso, My Architect, or Crumb. In that company, No Restraint seems rather traditional and plain. It has clips from Barney’s works, talking head-interviews, and some footage of the artist at work. The documentary itself doesn’t try to do anything to grab your attention; it simply tries to present the subject within the framework of a documentary movie.

But when your subject is Matthew Barney, perhaps a “normal” framework is the best way to present the artist. Better to let the artist jump out of those boundaries himself, rather that approaching the documentary as a work of art.

But Is It Art

The conversations I’ve had about Barney tend to center on whether he’s really creating art. It’s easy to question his credentials. He never had to fight and starve and prove himself to world; he only proved himself to his angel, Barbara Gladstone. His art doesn’t go over well as a soundbite, either. Smearing vaseline on a weight machine doesn’t impress anyone but “News of the Weird.”

But Matthew Barney: No Restraint takes him seriously and gives a solid overview of his career to date. The movie doesn’t deliberately invite any detractors to go on camera, but neither does it force an opinion of Barney on you.

If you’ve seen any of Barney’s work and wanted to know more, Matthew Barney: No Restraint is the movie for you.