Courtesy of YUAG

With the exhibition “Matthew Barney: Redoubt” at the Yale University Art Gallery, Yale alum Matthew Barney ’89 returns to campus with the first major display of his work at his alma mater. The exhibit was organized by former Senior Deputy DirectorPamela Franks and Seymour H. Knox, Jr., curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the YUAG and current Class of 1956 Director of the Williams College Museum of Art.

“Redoubt” showcases the contemporary artist’s latest body of work, which he began in 2016. His project includes a two-hour film set in Idaho centered around a wolf hunt, which is screened in the YUAG auditorium on select dates, as well as accompanying objects on display in the gallery space. On view from March 1 to June 16, the exhibit features four monumental sculptures, more than 40 engravings and electroplated copper plates and an artist-conceived catalogue.

Sutphin Family Senior Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings at the gallery and an essayist for the Redoubt Catalogue, Elisabeth Hodermarsky described the project as a “coming home in many ways — a coming home to Idaho, to Yale” for Barney.

According to Hodermarsky, Barney launched his career at Yale, premiering the first seminal performance piece he did in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium. Stephanie Wiles, the YUAG’s Henry J. Heinz II Director said Yale is the “right place” to show Barney’s work due to the fact that Barney’s work was in part inspired by engaging with the YUAG’s collection, conversing with the staff of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History and considering the natural environment from diverse perspectives.

“When he came back, he was really excited about it,” said Wiles. “I think there are these moments in people’s lives when suddenly something in your past becomes relevant again somehow, and I think this really meant a lot to him.”

Set and shot in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho where Barney grew up, the film follows the story of a wolf hunt loosely based on the classical myth of Diana and Actaeon. It narrates the story of a modern day sharpshooter, Diana, and her two attendants during a seven-day hunt in Idaho. Barney also casts himself as a character in the film: He plays a forest service agent and engraver.

According to Hodermarsky, the subject matter of the exhibit demonstrates an aspect of Barney’s adolescence. At the time, the wolf population in Idaho had been decimated, causing discussion and debate about the reintroduction of wolves into the landscape to balance the ecosystem. It was only in 1995 that the wolf population was finally reintroduced. These conversations and events remain relevant for Barney to this day.

In the film, the events of modern day Idaho are explored in the form of various myths that reflect similar themes. In addition to Classical Greek mythology, Barney explores mythologies of the American West, Hodermarsky said.

In an interview with Franks available in the YUAG’s spring 2019 magazine, Barney said, “The conflict [regarding the wolf population] was in the air well before the reintroduction actually happened, and it was intense. It captured something essential about the state and its political divide, which has been extreme for as long as I can remember. Given the place that wolves occupy in our imagination, the conversation took on a mythological quality, even for a young mind and had a much greater meaning than the sum of the two arguments being voiced.”

To accompany the film, Barney created a series of electroplated copper plates using the engravings he made during the shooting of the film. He created the engravings using an experimental technique he developed himself. The plates, which have unique variations made by adding charring effects and altering conditions of the electroplating apparatus, display imagery from the film.

The exhibit also includes tree sculptures, which are made from creating sand molds of burned trees taken from forest-fire zones in the Sawtooth range and pouring molten copper and brass through the mold. Parts of the original trees remain in the works, allowing a heightened dimensional and sensory experience of what the viewer witnesses during the film.

Hodermarsky described the project as “magical.”

“All of these works are meant to quote each other, are meant to resonate with each other,” Hodermarsky said. “In terms of materials, he really is pushing boundaries in new ways.”

For Wiles, the importance of Barney’s work lies in its connections to the environment and the different perspectives through which it explores this subject. She said that Barney’s work “really does bring attention to the environment, yet it does so playfully.”

“He takes something, flips it around, changes it and makes you look at it a little bit differently, which is what I think we all have to do today,” Wiles added.

Barney’s descriptions of individual works in the exhibit can be accessed on the YUAG mobile phone app. Upcoming events involving the exhibit include conversations titled “Responding to Redoubt,” on April 6 at 4 p.m. with Eleanor Bauer and Molleen Theodore, on April 24 at 12:30 p.m. with Sandra Lamouche and Molleen Theodore and on May 2 at 5:30 p.m. with Ingrid Burke, Arthur Middleton and Jennifer Raab.

Freya Savla | freya.savla@yale.edu

Clarification, March 28: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the sentiments of Elisabeth Hodermarsky regarding the contents of Barney’s film. 

Correction, March 28: A previous version of the story stated that the reintroduction of wolves into Idaho took place in 1992. In fact, it was in 1995.