Gallery openings are, more often than not, events where social and imbibational interests tend to eclipse the ostensible purpose of unveiling a new exhibition. Seldom will you see a crowd so completely engaged in the art as it was at the Tom Friedman debut at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. People looked at the art–and looked again. They discussed. They debated. They marveled and they laughed. They went back and looked for clues in the wall texts, but Friedman rarely titles his works, so little help is found there.
This touring show of thirty-five works is the first museum survey of Friedman’s work and it is a delight on every level. He uses everyday materials as his media, everything from sugar cubes to soap powder to toothpicks to construction paper. (Would you believe spaghetti, bubble gum, hair, tooth paste, toilet paper?) With painstaking, seemingly obsessive/compulsive technique he uses these materials to create images ranging from the literal ("hair") to the disturbing (the construction paper work pictured to the left – a shattered body in a pool of blood) to the completely conceptual (a la Sol Lewitt – a 1995 line drawing based on a precise schematic formula).
But the small tuft of hair is mounted high on the wall, well above eye level, with a resulting forced change of perspective. A self-portrait carved in an aspirin tablet requires close-up scrutiny due to its small scale. In each of these works there is such a shift–in placement, in scale, in a sense of play between materials, image and concept, a sense of a riddle to be contemplated. The materials may be mundane, but the artistry is exceptional. Many of the works immediately raise questions of methodology and generate amazement at the perfection of Friedman’s execution: How the hell did he do that?
Friedman’s work has antecedents in Pop art, but it isn’t as literal–it’s always got a subtle twist. And the materials and execution always engender dialogue with the image itself. A starburst, like an oversized 3-D snowflake, substantial, but impeccably balanced and therefore lightly floating at the same time, is made of who-knows-how-many glued-together toothpicks. If it was cast in bronze it might be a beautiful object; what Friedman offers is a beautiful object that plays back and forth with the perception of its unexpected materials and astounding craftsmanship.
In other works, it’s not so much a question of craftsmanship as it is of choices, often laden with gentle ironies. "One thousand hours of staring" (1992-1997) is a blank piece of paper, but the description raises all the questions–and a relative in attendance assures us that Friedman did sit and stare at that piece of paper. A framed work of press type on paper is called "Down." It is a long list of words, one to a line, and every word is, well, a down, a negative, from "abhor" to "wrong." Another work which has stimulated wide comment is a miniscule speck, barely visible, of the artist’s feces, sitting on a white pedestal. And there are puns like "My Foot," a ruler with holes punched in it.
In Friedman’s work the ordinary morphs into the extraordinary, the literal mutates into the abstract, the prosaic flashes with wit, simplicity belies complexity, and the familiar becomes strange. Best of all, it’s accomplished without pretense, with only the mildest degree of assertiveness. It invites; it doesn’t demand.