Tom Friedman

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through October 1

By Fred Camper

It’s often claimed that since contemporary artists are heavily influenced by other artists’ work and by current theory, their output is best understood by experts, that the proper interpretation and context of such work can come only from critics and academics.

Like most myths, this one has some truth to it–though it was sharply belied on one of my visits to the wonderful Tom Friedman exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. A four-year-old girl, Cat, attending the show with her mother, stood at one side and then another of Small World (1995-’97) performing the most basic act of art criticism: naming the objects she saw. Enclosed in a rectangular glass case on the floor were a few hundred tiny, brightly colored Play-Doh sculptures of ordinary things: a telephone, an airplane, a sock, headphones, a palette, a match, a watermelon, a hairbrush, a rainbow, a hot dog with relish. Clever details gave some pieces a wry humor: green relish on the hot dog, colored bands on the sock. None of us could identify everything, but like me, Cat found some things amusing, giggling when her mom pointed out a Band-Aid: seeing such a mundane object reproduced that faithfully in an art museum is, well, funny.

Cat’s mom told me that her daughter was way past the stage at which a kid announces the name of everything she sees. So her discourse was a response to this particular piece, and in fact when her mom gently suggested several times that they move on to something else, Cat said quite emphatically that she wanted to spend all her time here. She knew she hadn’t yet exhausted this work, which she understood a lot better than the adult viewers who walked by with only a glance, simply noting the “concept” and moving on.

Properly seen, the 37 Friedman works on view all slow the viewer down, stop her in her tracks–cause her to notice the process whereby a visual object is identified and named and thereby diminished, something adults do all too often, losing the rich resonance of the thing itself. But Small World’s mix of fidelity, miniature scale, and humor focuses attention on the act of looking and identifying. The Band-Aids and hot dogs unconsciously “used” in daily life bring you to a halt here, as you notice which details Friedman was able to preserve and which were lost in translation. Packed more densely at the center than at the edges, this array also evokes star clusters, giving the piece an expansive feel. It does what artists have always done: create a new world out of the seen, presenting us with the known in a new way.

Friedman, born in 1965 in Saint Louis and now a resident of rural Massachusetts, lived in Chicago for five years in the late 80s and early 90s; he received an MFA in 1990 from the University of Illinois at Chicago. When he was part of a two-person show in 1996 at the Art Institute (which included some of the pieces here), he told me that he was interested in “showing the complex nature of one’s experience of an object,” a formulation that’s still apt. Everything here can be named but not reduced to its name; Friedman introduces some paradox, often humorous, into the act of perception, making one more conscious of the oversimplified nature of “recognition.” There’s something about all of Friedman’s work that should stop us in our tracks: his simple alterations make ordinary materials strange, giving the perceptual process new life.

An untitled 1999 piece looks like a giant cereal box nearly three feet high, but the text and pictures are broken, almost shattered: the word “Total” is an assemblage of different cardboard squares from different boxes so that the outline of each letter is repeated, the letters nearly vibrating. It looks as if several boxes have somehow collided (Friedman actually used nine) and, in an event out of science fiction, almost merged; the familiar spoon serving up cereal and a strawberry is a blurry mix. The effect is of some slightly demented cubist breakdown of a familiar advertising image, forcing the viewer to piece together a unified image from fragments. Again, the familiar is altered to provoke the viewer into a more active role. And as often happens in Friedman’s pieces, his alterations intensify the sensuality of the colors and forms, deepening one’s visual pleasure. In a way he’s realizing the packaging designer’s fondest hope–causing the viewer to look, and look again. But Friedman denies the simpleminded ethos of advertising, which aims for one unconscious and immediate translation of the image into “Buy me.”

When Friedman was in graduate school, he had an unusual reaction to the usual “art theory, aesthetics–ideas about the potentially political nature of art making.” Removing everything from his studio, he painted 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 told me. Eventually he spent a week assembling a jigsaw puzzle on the floor, but “three-quarters of the way through, I realized once I was through that I would separate the pieces. It seemed to make it into a different kind of puzzle in that one had to visually piece the image together.” In an untitled 1990 piece on view, the pieces of another puzzle are laid out on a low pedestal and separated by empty spaces about equal to their width; look hard and you can see some kind of landscape. But the pieces are too many and too small for the mind to assemble the picture perfectly. The resulting visual paradox recalls the perceptual complexities of modernist representational work, right back to its origins in Cezanne, who created worlds of struggling shapes rather than compositions organized around a center.

Several other pieces here are closer to conceptual art, perhaps reflecting the studio time Friedman spent simply sitting and thinking about objects. 1,000 Hours of Staring (1992-’97) is a large piece of white paper sealed under glass. The materials are identified in a wall label as “Stare on paper.” Having spent 1,000 hours staring at this sheet, Friedman now encourages the viewer to think about why such an act might be interesting. The label also raises the question of whether his stare has actually altered the paper, or one’s perception of it, in the same way that “watercolor on paper” would. Friedman’s label both suggests some mystical belief system and jokes on familiar “emperor’s new clothes” criticisms of contemporary art.

The “stare on paper” formulation brings us to the crux of Friedman’s work: it’s not so much about obsessive techniques or humor or the ordinariness of his materials as it is about the way an object becomes meaningful, a process that remains somewhat mysterious in most art. Sol LeWitt’s wonderfully austere grids or his brightly colored, sensuous wall paintings–on view in a fine retrospective also at the MCA–offer more than just pleasing shapes and patterns: there’s a tiny frisson as perfection is recognized, a kind of inner falling into place. Your eye and mind are engaged, but the final effects are hard to account for. Friedman seeks to open up the black box of the art experience, in which images are received at one end and meaning is produced at the other. 1,000 Hours of Staring foregrounds this process: because his alteration to the paper is entirely conceptual, the viewer is forced to think about how the knowledge conveyed by the wall label alters his experience of the paper. Other pieces open up similar gaps between materials and our perception of them.

An untitled 1989 work consists of blue toothpaste gooped on the wall to form a sharp-edged trapezoid wider at the right than at the left. A powerful optical illusion results when one stands back from it a bit: because of the perspectival effect of the shape, it seems that the entire wall is projecting forward at the right. Move a bit, and it becomes flat again–Friedman’s optical trickery is made visible in a way that explains it. Using toothpaste rather than the perfectly smooth colors James Turrell would use is also key: Friedman’s work is not just about seeing but about seeing the everyday substances we consume unthinkingly.

Friedman also acknowledges his own part in the process of creating meaning. Down (1995) is a very tall column of “downer” words ordered alphabetically: “cowardly, crabby, crap, crass, crime, critical, crook, crucify, crud…” The words are just black press type on white paper, so the emotional state they evoke is not the result of any formal manipulation. Rather the viewer is made aware of the perverse selectivity of an artist who would make crassness a crime and critics into crooks but leaves out “create.” Just as Friedman seeks to make the viewer more conscious of perception and meaning by separating the object from our interpretation of it, so here he separates whatever personal state drove him to select these words from the form they take.

Friedman explores the cultural implications of meaning in an untitled 1991-’94 map, showing much of North America, with the U.S. states in bright colors, Canada and Mexico in white, and printed state, city, and town names. The crucial difference in Friedman’s map is that, while all the names are rightside up, the map is upside down, reminding us of what any historian of cartography knows: that maps reflect the biases of the cultures that make them, that they tend to place those cultures at the center, and that “up” hasn’t always been north.

The town names are in press type, applied by hand, encouraging the viewer to pay close attention. But some of them are misspelled: Peoria is “Pioria,” Laramie “Larimie,” and Fond du Lac “Fon du Lac.” I was somewhat bothered by these glitches, to which Friedman responded that “glitches imply the type of perfection that’s mathematical. These aren’t glitches–these are just events that are natural to the process.”

Friedman’s work also has an autobiographical strain: the show displays as separate works his pubic hair on a bar of soap and a tiny dot of his excrement on a pedestal. Two other “self-portraits” are among his best works. In an untitled 1988 digital print he expands the pixels at the edge of his profile horizontally, stretching them to three-foot-wide very thin bands, one for each pixel, some flesh-colored and others the blue gray of his clothing. The blur at the edge of the lines reminds us this is digital art, but the composition also recalls minimalist color-field painting, given here a body-oriented, autobiographical twist. As is common in Friedman’s work, the piece is quite beautiful in itself, the thin bands producing a pulsating sensuality whose irregularities reflect the vagaries of the human figure. The self-indulgent aspects of the contemporary self-portrait–sometimes it seems every art student photographs herself–are undercut by Friedman’s digital manipulations, which paradoxically both render the artist invisible and expand his persona into the eternalizing stripes of abstract art. In this way, Friedman exposes the divided nature of narcissism: even as it inflates one’s sense of self it creates a self that’s narrow and unanchored, a nonentity.

Another untitled self-portrait, completed this year, outdoes the most gruesome tabloid: a dismembered body based on Friedman’s own, hacked asunder as if by an ax murderer, lies in a giant pool of blood. Offsetting the horror of this image is the fact that the material is simple construction paper, so that the blood on the floor and inside the gaping wounds is the same red. The figure’s crumpled pants are the same blue all over. Friedman complicates the homogeneous colors by cutting the blood splatters into different sizes and shapes, even placing pieces of red construction paper on top of larger pieces of red to suggest dense pools of blood. At once disturbingly realistic and weirdly abstract, this piece is both finely articulated and less differentiated than the flattest color-field painting: oil paint applied with a brush will always have more subtlety than colored construction paper.

In our 1996 interview, Friedman said that the basic elements of his art are “material, the process for transforming the material, the form that this transformation takes, and its presentation or location.” That might be said of most artists’ work; the difference is that Friedman makes the relationships between these elements his subject. The viewer shouldn’t be thinking of cliched bloody ax murders so much as the tricks that can be accomplished with construction paper. I hope Cat didn’t see this piece, but perhaps older kids might be inspired to make their own construction-paper sculptures.

Here too the location is crucial. Blood splattering a museum floor seems a violation of its staid purity–but no, it’s just colored paper, an appropriate material for a museum. Then again, it’s construction paper–is this a respectable art institution or a second-grade class? The viewer thus questions how the locale confers meaning on the work. But a more important issue–the mysterious connection between pure, solid colors and what they represent–is quite properly never resolved, forcing the viewer into awareness of the subjectivity of art making and art viewing. Once again I thought of the sublime paradoxes of Cezanne.