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Matthew Barney, Facility of Decline

In a photograph from 1899, a twenty-five-year-old Houdini looks toward the camera with a calm but teasing smile. He is naked save for a loincloth, and his body is trussed with chains weighted by padlocks. The manacles snake around his neck, arms, and feet, pulling him forward into a bow. To the right is a picture of Jim Otto, the 256-pound Raiders player who underwent so many surgeries due to his football career (seventy-four in total) that he should have been fast-tracked for a medical license in orthopedics. He has a Cro-Magnon superciliary arch and holds his Raiders helmet aloft like the head of a decapitated victim. Juxtaposed in the introductory pages of OTTO Trilogy—the catalogue that accompanies Matthew Barney’s current exhibition at Gladstone Gallery—the two are in cosmic tension.

If the two are Barney’s mythical deities, their gallery is the universe. In Repressia (1991), bone-white plastic anchors form tracks along the ceiling above an expansive wrestling mat. In Transexualis (1991), a walk-in cooler houses a cast petroleum jelly decline bench. These and other sculptures on view, most from 1991, are perplexing in the same way that the Giant’s Causeway must have been before the invention of explanatory myths. Video performances, looped on televisions throughout the gallery, provide that mythology...

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