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Originally published March 23, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 23, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Movie review

"Matthew Barney" | Sketchy portrait of an artist

It's dotted with intriguing moments, but Alison Chernick's documentary on artist/filmmaker Matthew Barney doesn't hang together. Barney is the hunky...

Seattle Times art critic

It's dotted with intriguing moments, but Alison Chernick's documentary on artist/filmmaker Matthew Barney doesn't hang together.

Barney is the hunky Idaho-grown athlete and model turned art star, known for his oozing petroleum jelly sculptures and gorgeously strange feature-length films. Unfortunately, Chernick delivers few insights into Barney's often-enigmatic work, and it's hard to tell whether she admires the artist or finds him rather silly. Her camera meanders from the set of Barney's latest movie, "Drawing Restraint 9," shot on the Japanese whaling ship Nisshin Maru; to flashbacks of Barney as a kid and college football player; to clips of his earlier films; to interviews with puzzled Japanese observers, savvy art-world insiders and Barney's dad.

Movie review 2 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Matthew Barney: No Restraint," a documentary directed by Alison Chernick.

72 minutes. Not rated; contains some adult subject matter. Northwest Film Forum.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to watch "No Restraint" without already being familiar with Barney's work. I couldn't. It would all be pretty obscure.

Barney seems to be playing the role of himself and comes across as slightly puzzled at how it's meant to be done. His appearance alters continually, with facial hair ranging from bushy to a fashionable stubble to cleanly shorn. Even his casual clothing seems like costuming.

Both Barney and his pop-star girlfriend, Björk, who co-stars in "Drawing Restraint 9," come across as self-conscious and unconvincing when discussing their work. If Chernick set out to portray the couple's movie project as a bit frivolous and self-absorbed, she succeeded. But I doubt that was the intention.

The documentary did clarify some things. I discovered that Barney and Björk were meant to morph from land mammals to whales in the course of "Drawing Restraint 9," a transformation that, like so much of that film's symbology, was not obvious to this viewer. (What Barney meant to communicate by that transformation remains unclear.) And I was confirmed in my suspicions that the employees of the whaler Nisshin Maru were not altogether wowed with their art-star guests and the strange movie project imposed on them. A site foreman is polite but frank: "We've never had an experience like this, so honestly we're having a hard time doing it." (The Nisshin Maru has since suffered misfortune. It made international news in February when a fire on board killed one sailor and crippled the ship off New Zealand.)

The smartest take on Barney comes from New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, who evenhandedly sums up the artist's media-power, the off-putting obscurity of his discourse and the fabulous imagination that drives his work. And then, of course, there's Barney's dad, who points out what a whopping job his son would have done if he'd pursued his early interest in becoming a plastic surgeon. Now that's something to think about.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

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