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Barney Incest, Messy Remnant; Met’s Boxer: Lance Esplund

Matthew Barney
"CREMASTER 4: Manx Manual" (1994-95) by Matthew Barney. This graphite, lacquer and petroleum jelly drawing is part of "Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney," a mid-career retrospective at New York's Morgan Library & Museum. Source: Matthew Barney/Gladstone Gallery/The Morgan Library & Museum via Bloomberg

June 15 (Bloomberg) -- In one necrophilic drawing, Isis straddles the supine, skeletal Osiris in a field.

In another piece, a meld of pop culture and ancient Egyptian myth, we witness the violent C-section birth of Anubis, the jackal-headed Underworld god bred of sibling incest.

These are among about 100 drawings and storyboards in the intriguing, unorthodox and creepy “Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney,” a mid-career survey at New York’s Morgan Library & Museum.

Besides fantasy narratives inspired by ancient Egypt, there are wiry, surrealist images of sewage, sodomy, genitalia, bondage and a personified engine from a muscle car.

One gallery is littered with the remnants of Barney’s “Drawing Restraint No. 20.” It’s an athletic wall drawing/performance -- a big black arching smudge -- executed with petroleum jelly, graphite powder and an Olympic-grade bar-and-weight set.

Even stranger, some of Barney’s drawings are housed in self-lubricating, pastel-colored plastic frames. The frames’ “soothing” hospital colors add an unnerving, medicinal edge to nightmarish scenes of torture.

Interspersed with Barney’s drawings are ancient Egyptian “Books of the Dead” and artworks by Goya, Hokusai and Michelangelo. We also encounter homages to and photographs of Houdini, Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe, Norman Mailer and Muhammad Ali.

Toy Cars

There are toy cars: Among Barney’s pop-culture influences is the golden firebird emblazoning the hood of Burt Reynolds’s black Pontiac Trans Am, from “Smokey and the Bandit.”

This mercurial show has a mystical, diaristic air. Yet Barney’s personal mythology remains evasive if not impenetrable. One thing is certain: Pitting his work against the Morgan’s masterpieces isn’t doing Barney any favors.

An effusive, stream-of-consciousness collage, the exhibition resembles a brilliant adolescent’s sexually obsessed scrapbook of invented folklore. It may or may not be better off left under the bed.

“Subliming Vessel: The Drawings of Matthew Barney” runs through Sept. 2 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave. Information:+1-212-685-0008 or http://www.themorgan.org.

Greek Boxer

I first came upon the seated bronze nude figure from behind. He resembled Rodin’s “The Thinker,” but he was a philosopher-cum-warrior.

Exhausted and bleeding, sporting a broken nose, he clasped his knuckles. Facial cuts inlaid with copper highlighted his wounds. He looked at me from over his shoulder: Was he greeting me or sizing me up?

The commanding pugilist temporarily lords it over the grand concourse of the Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Muscled, lanky and lean, slightly larger than life, he rests on a boulder after a match.

Excavated in 1885, the Greek “Boxer at Rest” (late 4th-2nd century B.C.) probably adorned the nearby ancient Baths of Constantine and was buried possibly to be saved from barbarian invasions in late antiquity.

Here to celebrate “2013 -- Year of Italian Culture in the United States,” the statue is on loan to the Met for six weeks from the Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.

Don’t let this artwork’s title fool you. His taut, coiled body and tightly curled hair and beard suggest not a body at rest but, rather, potential energy -- the embodiment of readiness.

“The Boxer: An Ancient Masterpiece” runs through July 15 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-535-7710; http://www.metmuseum.org.

(Lance Esplund is the U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Greg Evans and Craig Seligman on movies.

To contact the writer on the story: Lance Esplund, in New York, at lesplund@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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