Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle may well be the Ulysses of our time: willfully obscure, deeply personal, grandiosely mythological, and totally picked to pieces by critics determined to "read" it. Consequently, much has been read into it, but often as not it is not exactly seen.

I'm not particularly interested in furthering Barnesian studies. Most everyone now knows that the cremaster muscle raises and lowers the testicles, in response to external stimuli (or if you didn't, you do now). What draws you into these films is the allusive work you bring to them as a viewer: finding connections, getting lost, and finding a complicated way out again. The pleasure of letting Barney's crazily specific images wash over you--of being separated from common logic and narrative and pace--is also intense. To really give yourself over to these films is to allow Barney to make even your daily life strange for a while.

It is a dense and complicated experience, but Barney does not leave you without a signpost or two. All five films are united by the presence of his sculptures, often set in the particular off-white of Vaseline and tapioca, which function not so much as props but as characters, and so highlight the odd in the ordinary: a pair of handcuffs is not just a pair of handcuffs, but an elaborate and sinister construct. Images form a language in which words are somehow beside the point, not that there's much dialogue at all. There are shapes that appear over and over again: the wedge, the braided cord, spheres, dumbbells, and Barney's "field emblem" (an oval bisected by a line). There is a complex, shifting numerology, in which the number of people, objects, or events clustered together is never incidental. The meaning of numbers and shapes is fugitive, elusive, but always significant, always pushing the action forward.

The action, such as it is, is based in a few recurring themes, some biological (such as gender differentiation) and some tragic (such as hubris and failure). (Watch for the way success is thwarted cinematically, by a cut-away shot or the screen going blank.) The body is a loaded entity here (Barney favors a kind of athleticism that pits the body against itself), and often appears in unusual forms: strangely androgynous bodybuilders, a severely skinny corpse, women and men with tiny cinched waists, and double amputee (and model and athlete) Aimee Mullins, who appears with some splendid prostheses. Feet and shoes, in fact, recur: Look for the Goodyear brand, the Manx triskelion, flower legs, shoes that cut potatoes, shoes that shoot out grapes, and tap shoes. There are plenty of genitals, as befits the biological themes, but they never look quite as you would think.

Also look for crowds (a swarm of bees, a line of chorus girls, a mosh pit), restraints (girdles, corsets, shackles, gloves, ropes), and different kinds of ritualistic sects (Mormons, Freemasons, death metal, rodeo riders, team sports), as well as at least one instance of ritualistic sex.

And holding all of this together is Vaseline, the lubricant du jour, and, according to the artist, the mucus that pretty much binds everything together.

(With thanks to Andy Spletzer, Bruce Reid, Chris Dougherty, and Stan Shields.)