The artworks featured in “Djed,” Matthew Barney’s most recent show at Gladstone, could easily be mistaken for archaeological finds. On crossing the gallery’s threshold, the visitor is greeted by what looks like an ancient burial mound supported on wooden beams. Cast entirely in bronze, Canopic Chest (2009-11), the bulkiest of all four sculptures on view, reveals tantalizing traces of human activity on closer inspection: a glint of gold here, a scrap of rusty metal there, the rough outline of four earthen vessels nestled in matching round receptacles, and, crowning it all, a hieratical polished bronze object resembling a crowbar propped up against a small headrest. From the Bronze Age of Canopic Chest, we fast-forward to the Iron Age in the main exhibition space. The three mysterious cast-iron objects that make up the titular Djed (2009-11) appear to be hovering close to the ground or rather floating above a lustrous body of water like so many islands.
To the uninitiated, those unacquainted with the minutiae of the Isis and Osiris story and Barney’s own peculiar retelling of it in the ongoing Chrysler Imperial saga, their shape may evoke that of mythical sea creatures — a whale, a scorpion and a turtle respectively — with protruding, somehow inadequate limbs calling to mind Giacometti’s sculptures. A counterpoint to the weighty sculptural works, the delicate drawings etched against a rich oxblood backdrop in the series “River Rouge” (2011) and “Khu: Djed” (2009-11) with its exquisite combination of gold leaf and lapis lazuli on paper reminiscent of a Japanese print, are an integral part of the exhibition. Their titles and subtitles, together with the accompanying libretto of an opera loosely inspired by Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings (1983) offer hints on how to piece together a narrative out of the sculptural fragments on view. But the works can be enjoyed on their own, for their lavish interplay of textures, patterns and sheens; nowhere more so than in the show’s final piece, Secret Name (2008-11), in which Barney reverts to some of his wonted materials, namely plastic, whose smooth creamy surface melds together and beautifully contrasts that of lead, copper and zinc.
Agnieszka Gratza is an art critic based in New York.
Djed was on view from September 17 – October 22 at Gladstone, New York.