What It Is: Juliet Helmke on Tom Friedman
Tom Friedman: Paint and Styrofoam at Luhring Augustine
May 22 to August 8, 2014
25 Knickerbocker Avenue (between Johnson Avenue and Ingraham Street)
Brooklyn, 718 386 2746
It feels at first like Tom Friedman’s exhibition of new work, on view at Luhring Augustine in Bushwick, might be playing a trick on viewers. But it isn’t smoke and mirrors, it’s paint and Styrofoam. All of it; there’s nothing but those two elements adorning the gallery walls and floor. Yet it appears like there must be something more in the mix. There’s so much precision, so much detail. A microphone, chair and guitar without strings stand in one corner. It takes pretty close inspection to confirm that the wood grain is, in fact, the work of a paintbrush. In faux-assemblage wall pieces like Blue (all 2014) and Toxic Green Luscious Green — each comprised of a single color, with a dense section of detritus either clinging to the top edge or falling to the bottom — it seems unbelievable that everything collected in the messy, three-dimensional pile of scraps is only made out of the materials proclaimed by the exhibition’s title. The apple-core, the slice of pizza, the paper plane — all from flimsy Styrofoam?
Since the early ‘90s Friedman has been exhibiting his brand of inventively fabricated sculptures, which have drawn comparisons to 1960s Conceptualism, Arte Povera and Minimalism. But his work fits into none of these categories completely. Taking many different forms, they are unified by the nature of the material they are made from — inexpensive, ubiquitous and disposable — and the great care Friedman takes in crafting them. Earlier works (not on display here) have included an untitled self-portrait from 2000, appearing to be the artist’s body splattered on the floor after a horrific accident; it is painstakingly cut out of colored construction paper. Another self-portrait is carved out of a single aspirin. Thirty-thousand toothpicks stuck together form a giant starburst. Fishing line, sugar cubes, plastic cups, chewed bubblegum, roasting pans and soap inlaid with pubic hair have all been fodder for Friedman’s transformative hand.
As with those earlier pieces, here it’s in making something to marvel at, using very ordinary elements, that delights viewers at the outset. Despite one’s skepticism, assistants at the gallery assure that all the works in “Paint and Styrofoam” are made purely from these two resources. And the works here really are marvelous, but for reasons beyond their material trickery.
Each wall piece is monochromatic — frame (also carved of Styrofoam) and all. Tonal variations are created by texture and shape. What becomes clear is that Friedman is, in effect, painting with form. In Blue Styrofoam Seascape, the distinction between ocean and sky is made by the cusp of a subtle, beveled vertex that juts out towards the viewer, drawing a horizon directly across the baby blue surface. The sea darkens as it recedes, forming a perfect division between water and air.
Similarly, the self-portrait created for this exhibition is painted meticulously. The artist wears glasses and has a feather in his hat, looking out over his shoulder. It’s also painted in a blindingly bright canary yellow. Detail comes from the paint’s texture, as it does in the work exhibited directly to the left. That painting, Night, is recognizable to the viewer at once. It’s Van Gogh’s 1889 masterpiece Starry Night replicated exactly, down to the folded canvas edges, but painted not on canvas, of course, and devoid of any color except for a tarry blackish-blue.
A bite-sized nick in the corner of the outwardly standard white plinth, upon which a bulbous, Pepto-Bismol pink sculpture snakes toward the ceiling, is the only moment that Friedman reveals what’s behind the curtain. About a foot off the ground, the break in the stand reveals just a few inches of the foamy, aerated plastic that’s all around, but covered everywhere else in a solid layer of acrylic paint.
Friedman refers to the wall works as “sculptures of paintings.” With the chipped plinth in mind, one can’t help but feel that the floor works are likewise sculptures of sculptures. They imitate what is traditionally found in an exhibition space: paint, canvases, frames, pedestals, items of worth and value because of their material expense, maker’s name, or historical significance. Some of these elements are here, legitimately. Others are a careful emulation of what we expect to see. But each piece asks to be questioned, opening exploration into the space between what is actually present and what can be seen.