Loughton Candidate, 1994, The Cremaster Cycle 4. Matthew Barney & Gabe Bartalos.
All photos by Brian Addison.
When one walks around the Gabe Bartalos: Abhorrence and Obsession exhibit at the University Art Museum (UAM), it's somewhat like an epiphany: Why, oh why, has a special-effects artist never been featured in a museum?
"I came down to Long Beach three years ago to see the great Brian Eno's exhibit [at UAM]," Bartalos said. "I was stunned. What establishment got Eno? They gotta be cool, right?"
And after Bartalos purchased some of Eno's work, UAM Director Christopher Scoates recognized the special effects guru's name. This led to an invitation to Bartalos's studio near Burbank. Scoates was impressed at what Bartalos described as "sculpting exercises, in-between works and personal pieces."
His upcoming exhibit was born.
"I've always considered film effects to be artwork," Bartalos said. "These things are speaking outside of myself and to put them in the surroundings of a museum adds a sense of taste. You begin to see that a lotta love and care went into these pieces."
Bartalos's work is grotesquely beautiful, with seemingly painstaking attention to detail that harkens back to a pre-digital time; where one must physically craft the monsters in their head on a level that requires a mix of skill, craft and imagination.
Even more, everything is horrifying—this is not the place to skip under the rainbow—and yet not repelling in any sense, even downright captivating as Bartalos's uncanny ability to simultaneously appeal to the curator and cult kid.
"I've seen the ratings board cut my films to shred over my effects, like in Friday the 13th Part IV (1986)," Bartalos said. "So you see the film and all you can think about is the time and money found on the editing floor. So when we can celebrate my own films, Skin Deep and [the soon to be released] Saint Bernard, the characters are definitely grotesque and offsetting… But I want the audience to look and not turn away. This exhibit is a way for them to enjoy the work, that they'll look at something and say, 'Wow, I haven't seen that before and it scares me but I want to look a little longer.'"
Bartalos started in film not really expecting to also fall into the world of high art. His role in horror film is indelible, from the Leprechaun series to Godzilla to the particularly significant pairing with American cult master Frank Henenlotter. Together, they created what Scoates calls "foul characters… that are violent, visceral, and disgustingly organic."
Mechanical Baby, 1995. Aluminum, fiberglass, titanium.
Brain Damage (1988) and Basket Case 2 (1990) were two of the most well-known works of the horror pairing, bringing forth the equally horrifying characters of Elmer—a parasitic creature who consumes brains—and Belial—a contorted, arms-for-ears head.
In 1991, Bartlos's work caught the eye of then 24-year-old artist Matthew Barney, fresh off the cover of Artforum and skyrocketing in the art world through his still-ongoing series Drawing Restraint. And by bringing Bartalos in for Drawing Restraint 7, their pairing marked a shift in Barney's series: with narrative and the creation of characters the viewer can actually follow, the piece was awarded at the 1993 Venice Biennale.
"Matthew Barney was my first art project, my first adventure into the art world. I turned Matthew and someone else into a satyr for Drawing Restraint 7," Bartalos said, "They were in a limousine passing through the boroughs of New York in this perpetual motion with Matthew continually shifting seats… And since then, it seems like every year-and-a-half, Matthew asks me back."
This proved to be the beginning of a fruitful relationship, culminating in the series of films—The Cremaster Cycle—that art critic Jonathan Jones of The Guardian called "the first truly great piece of cinema to be made in a fine art context since Dali and Bunuel filmed Un Chien Andalou… It is one of the most imaginative and brilliant achievements in the history of avant-garde cinema."
The five part series—each part being a full, feature-length film—is a deeply exclusive one, with only one American institution, The Walker Art Center, owning the Cycle in its entirety.
The pair, through the Cycle, created one of Barney's most iconic images: Loughton Candidate, a disturbing yet can't-turn-your-eyes away goat-man creature dressed in an impeccable white suit. A sculpture of Loughton, drenched in vaseline, greets you at the front entrance to the exhibit.
Feet, from Drawing Restraint 9, 2005. Silicone rubber, oil paint, dental acrylic.
"Matthew and I have very different canvases but the same disciplines," Bartalos said. "As the collaborations went on, the shorthand became even more exciting: He could explain something in a sentence, I would send him a sculpture or a sketch and he would reply, 'You got it. Go for it.' He has his own vocabulary so there was definitely a learning curve understanding his meanings. But once you're immersed in his world, it becomes exciting."
That world is not just previewed in Bartalos's exhibit but will be even more tangible as the famously private Barney, noted by the New York Times as the most important American artist of our time, will sit down with Barney to have a conversation about creation at the Carpenter Center shortly following the opening night of Abborhence and Obsession.
The opening of the exhibit, from 6PM to 8PM at UAM on Saturday, September 7, is free and open to the public with no RSVP required. UAM is located at 1250 N Bellflower Boulevard on the CSULB campus.
Gabe Bartalos in conversation with Matthew Barney will occur at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center on Saturday, September 7 at 8PM. Tickets are $15 for general admission or $50 for VIP, which includes reserved seating and an invitation to a private post event reception. Tickets can be purchased by clicking here or calling 562-985-7000. The Carpenter Center is located at 6200 E Atherton Street.