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“It’s usually disgusting when your pubic hair gets stuck to the soap,” says artist Tom Friedman, but once after bathing he “found it beautiful–the curves on the white background of the soap.” This experience led to an artwork, soon to be exhibited at the Art Institute, in which the artist’s pubic hair is arranged in a spiral on a bar of soap.

Friedman, who’s 30, says critics have focused mainly on the repetitive and obsessive nature of his art. Most of his pieces use everyday materials in surprising ways–there’s a long coiled pencil shaving and a self-portrait carved from an aspirin–but his deeper concerns are more fundamental: he wants to examine the ways in which we experience objects in the world.

In the work Everything, Friedman wrote “all the words in the American Heritage Dictionary in pen” on a three-foot-square piece of paper, a process that occupied him part-time for three years. “The words are not written in any particular order; they’re kind of scattered throughout. Initially it looks like a textured blue piece of paper.” He hopes that the viewer who first sees only the textured paper will next notice words, and then guess from their variety that they’re all the words in a dictionary. The viewer will become more aware of the way he categorizes things in order to understand them.

Friedman’s been making things since childhood, but his interest in art began to mature in high school, when he became intrigued by the realist painters Richard Estes and Chuck Close. “I did a large painting of my older brother from a photo using my thumb as a brush.” In 1988 he moved here from Saint Louis to attend graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago. After being exposed to “art theory, aesthetics, the potentially political nature of art making,” Friedman says he responded by removing everything from his studio and painting the space white. “I had to find a way to explore my own experience of things, and so every day for about a month I would bring in something different from my apartment and place it in this space and then sit and think about it.” He began with a metronome–“it just went click click click”–and later assembled a jigsaw puzzle, separating its pieces slightly so that the viewer “had to visually piece the image together.”

An interest in our culture’s information overload–and in the obfuscating effects of media sensationalism–is reflected in a piece that began with a large self-portrait. “I started drawing arrows on it pointing to various parts of myself on the photo. They gradually accumulated to the point where they obliterated my body; all you see is this black figure that looks like it’s electrically charged. It has to do with intensely scrutinizing something almost to the point where the object disappears.”

Friedman’s art can be seen alongside portraits by Chuck Close in the exhibit Affinities: Chuck Close and Tom Friedman, which opens at the Art Institute next Saturday, April 27. Friedman will give a preshow slide lecture this Wednesday at 6 in the auditorium of the School of the Art Institute, 280 S. Columbus; admission is $3, free for seniors and students. He describes the talk as “an artificially constructed story of my development, which was not as linear and systematic as I portray it to be.” For more information, call 443-3711.

–Fred Camper

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Self-portrait carved out of aspirin”.