Matthew Barney


1967, California, United States


Matthew Barney's ambitious and distinctive body of work has comprised performance, video, film, photography, drawing, sculpture, and installation.

Born in 1967 in San Francisco, Barney grew up in the Bay Area and Boise, Idaho. He initially registered in premedical studies at Yale University but eventually transferred to the art department. There he created performance-based installations and videos informed both by his experiences as a high school athlete and by his interest in biology and the human body. These early works dramatized the restraints placed on the body (Barney's body, in particular), and its potential to transcend them.

Since his rise to prominence in the early 1990s, Barney's epic projects have addressed — sometimes cryptically — themes including biology, geology, art history, metaphysics, film genres, and cult heroes. He has developed his central concerns by taking on a breathtaking array of cultural and historical allusions: from ancient Greek satyrs to Busby Berkeley, from Harry Houdini to Richard Serra, from Freemasonry to Japanese whaling.

His recent work, such as the expansive CREMASTER film cycle, employs biomorphic imagery and industrial materials (most famously petroleum jelly) to connect these diverse references and create a new language for the mythology of our existence.

Audio Stories

Barney explains his interest in petroleum jelly and plastics

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I started using plastics which, you know, which all belong to the same family of prosthetic-grade plastics, I think as a way of, you know, both referring to the protective equipment that surrounded me as a football player and the possibility of taking some of those materials and putting em inside your body. You know, the potential for some of these materials to live both internally and externally as a way of building the architecture of the body, inward and outward.  

I think that within that family of plastics, I wanted there to be a liquid state. You know, a lot of these materials, their defining quality is their resistance to friction. 

And of course, you know, Vaseline petroleum jelly is a lubricant, so I think the initial impulse was more to do with making objects as a student, and, you know, being repelled by how dry they were, and just wanting to moisten them, and using petroleum jelly, cause it was available.  

Its also, I think, something that was just present all the time in the training room. There was always petroleum jelly, there was always the mentholated petroleum jelly that they would put on the roof of your mouth if you were—if you had cotton mouth, you know; or put on your ankles before they would tape them. There was always this sort of layer of lubricant.  

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