at the Rezac Gallery

It must have taken Tom Friedman thousands of chews to meld individual pieces of Bazooka gum into the marble-smooth softball-sized sphere on display in a corner of the Rezac Gallery. This untitled piece paradoxically combines refinement and irreverence, surprising us with its use of a pop-culture substance to create a work of fine art. Its placement is equally unexpected: stuck at eye level directly onto the walls of the corner, this sphere precociously utilizes an architectural feature usually ignored in galleries. The rest of the show charms and amuses us with similar modest surprises. But what really gives these pieces a special charge is the way bubble gum and other mundane materials remind us of the repetitive physical activity involved in artistic transformation–these are indeed “works” of art.

Most of Friedman’s untitled pieces evince an elegance so simple and direct that it borders on humility, the result of a meditative, almost Zen-like effacement of artistic ego that emerges from his low-tech approach to construction. One work, for instance, consists of a single 8 1/2-by-11-inch sheet of white paper perforated or embossed by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pinpricks. The sheet, which curls in on one side, hangs from the wall by means of a small stainless steel straight pin. The amazing thing about the work is the unexpected result of the pinpricking process: I was certain the paper’s pebbly texture came from a thick coat of white spray paint. One must look very carefully, and perhaps even question the gallery attendant, to discern the work’s true nature.

Another piece demanding careful scrutiny is a length of mill-cut wood lying casually on the floor near a couple of windows. Called Two by Four, this work looks so unmediated that we tend to glance at it and walk by. It seems just another pretentious, boring piece of conceptual art, or maybe it’s a carpenter’s remnant. Only after looking at the rest of the show did I return to this work for another look. The media, listed on the wall label, are acrylic and wood. This information is crucial. By kneeling down for a close-up view, I discovered that the whole surface of the wood had been painted to imitate the real wood-grain pattern underneath it. You can just barely see a viscous liquid effect in some areas of the beige and off-white moire pattern that signals what the artist has done.

Initially Two by Four may be understood as a good example of 1980s simulation art: it replicates, or counterfeits, the real wood surface. Such art is based on the postmodern theory of French intellectual Jean Baudrillard, who believes we can no longer distinguish reality from our image of it. Two by Four also recalls earlier superrealist and trompe l’oeil art; deception through illusion is the goal in all three styles. But I don’t believe that this is Friedman’s aim. In fact, the gallery attendant told me that the artist had painted the original piece so perfectly that no one could tell it was painted, even with close examination. A second version was more roughly painted to make his point, for the real subject of this piece is not simulation but Friedman’s meticulously detailed painting process. The carefully rendered faux-wood surface sends a clear mental image of the artist hunched over, painstakingly applying bits of color with a tiny brush. When we look at Two by Four we can “see” him producing it. The work functions like the documentation of a performance, conveying a strong sense of the invisible artist’s physical action. It also seems to demonstrate that the artist is not interested in the modernist imperative to produce a signature style.

In other pieces Friedman uses repetitive manual labor as a metaphor for the individual human component of mass culture, aestheticizing factory-made materials like laundry detergent, erasers, and toothpaste. The laundry soap takes the form of a delicate baby blue spiral poured out directly onto the gallery’s off-white wooden floor. Its pleasing simplicity has a contemplative sensibility reminiscent of Eastern religions; it seems to operate on the “many in one and one in many” principle. The spiral shape embraces concepts as large as galaxies and as specific as a washing machine’s spin cycle. Through his choice of material and its arrangement, the artist elevates the implied task of lowly clothes washing to the level of a purification ritual encompassing Western society, mass production, and spiritual enlightenment.

A gentle circle of red-pink eraser shavings near the back of the gallery has an initial impact similar to that of the blue spiral. This floor piece, 30 inches in diameter, is spread out so that it is densest in the center and becomes gradually more diffuse as it reaches its outer limits. Again the shape has an astronomical look, this time recalling a planetary body or glowing star. In terms of the labor involved, however, the circle is more akin to the much-chewed bubble-gum piece; accumulating all those eraser shavings must have required the artist to repeat a single arm motion thousands of times. The blue spiral, by contrast, is composed of ready-made, store-bought material. The reference to physical labor is implied by the detergent’s purpose–washing clothes–rather than by actual leftovers from a repetitive, labor-intensive process.

Unlike the rather comical bubble-gum work, both floor pieces are quietly moving. We sympathize with their vulnerability and evanescence. Their unprotected, uncontained placement on the floor makes them more open to damage or destruction than the wall pieces. And even if they escape being stepped on, we know that the materials composing them will be swept up and stored or thrown away as soon as the show ends. The eraser shavings are especially poignant, for they seem to symbolize not only the billions and billions (to steal a Carl Sagan phrase) of people who toil and die, but also the eternity of mistakes we make and try to erase over the course of time.

On a wall near the eraser piece we find a wonderfully strange work that displays a risque humor similar to that of the bubble-gum sculpture. This time Friedman has applied an aqua-colored gel toothpaste directly on the wall in the shape of an asymmetrical rectangle perhaps three feet by four feet. Because its right side is shorter than its left, it looks like it’s receding into the wall. This “painting” obviously pokes fun at more traditional forms of the medium, but it functions on other levels, too. The implications of the material and its quantity again elicit the image of a physical action–here toothbrushing–repeated infinite times, whether by the many (the masses) or the one (the artist). In terms of the masses, toothbrushing may be regarded as a necessary but automatic private act of little consequence. But toothbrushing analyzed, represented, and recontextualized by the artist makes for an artwork that uses a mass-produced, low-culture material to critique high culture; the work also evinces Friedman’s awareness of himself as a humble physical being as well as his self-awareness as an artist. The gel is a wacky “pigment,” but the jewellike aqua is aesthetically appealing. The work can be read as a cogent summary of the human condition–simultaneously important and ridiculous, beautiful and embarrassing, exciting yet incredibly banal.

It is a paradoxical fact of contemporary art that the most visually simple artwork is often the most intellectually complex. Miles of words are printed every year in attempts to interpret, clarify, and theorize about particular works, especially minimal, conceptual, and simulation art. But sometimes we may look at a stainless-steel cube by Donald Judd or a famous photograph appropriated by Sherrie Levine and wonder if some of the abstruse speculation isn’t just a case of trying to cover up the emperor’s lack of clothes. The current mainstream art scene is still dominated by a handful of brand-name artists paying other people to produce their work. Massive pieces composed of expensive materials pay off handsomely at the auctioneer’s block. And extensive critical hyperbole plays its part as a marketing tool.

But an influx of younger, less market-driven artists is slowly beginning to make its presence felt. Works like Tom Friedman’s celebrate the process of making rather than the process of selling. Like most minimalist artists, Friedman walks a fine line between giving us just enough information and not giving us enough–but he usually walks it successfully, and with a sense of humor. His simple, repetitive handiwork transforms normally unprepossessing, mass-produced products into something new, and this low-key work resonates richly because its materials and processes simultaneously incorporate aspects of physical, mental, and social being and communicate a variety of moods, ranging from funny to philosophical. In Friedman’s case, a little truly goes a long way.