30th May 2008 — 25th July 2008
Tom Friedman used to be my favourite artist. A few years ago however, I stopped caring so much. It was probably around about the time of his South London Gallery exhibition. Like the Dalis and Eschers that once adorned so many adolescent boys’ bedrooms, I felt that, in some way, I had outgrown Friedman. This isn't necessarily a good thing, and it isn't necessarily for the reasons one might imagine. This latest show – his first for Gagosian – will be very familiar to Friedman aficionados – riddled, as it is, with the pathologies of desirous adolescence; the neuroses of obsessive-compulsion; and the hysteria of case-book psychiatry. The latter facet – hysteria and, specifically, a post-Freudian, cinematic id – is noticeably more prominently underscored here than in Friedman's previous work. Where once his pieces were manifestly historical – flicking, apathetically, through the archives of minimalism and conceptualism – they now seem to be less crassly respectful, less wry when it comes to the historicity of form, and the legend of the artist.
A particularly memorable piece from earlier in his career involved a single, 32"-square sheet of white paper, pinned to the wall. Entitled '1,000 hours of staring', the piece documented just that: the artist staring at a 32"-square sheet of paper for 1,000 hours. Such formless conceptuality that draws the viewer into the mind of the artist – to see what he might have seen in that void of white – is carefully undermined as miraculous, inaccessible artistry by the other possibility: the impotence of the artist staring, blankly, at the paper; incapable of producing anything. This tension between heroism and failure – so enamoured of postmodern male artists – has been about-faced in his recent work, with Friedman turning ever more inwardly for inspiration, whilst allowing the materiality and the method to become the art-world referents. This is a subtle shift, and one that is perhaps best understood via the cod-psychiatry that peppers Friedman's work. Where it might have always been the case that the pieces were by-products – accidents – of trying to be an artist (and therefore guiltily sanctified by nodding towards proven art history), it now seems like Friedman has finally promoted what was once procrastinatory to its rightful position as fully-fledged, attended art practice. This was, of course always the case, but there seems less need for the diversionary tactics he once employed.
‘Monsters and stuff’ (the lethargically titled new show at Gagosian) is made up of, predominantly, monsters. As Friedman puts it in his brief introduction to the exhibition, ‘ “monsters” represent the abnormal’; whereas ‘ “and stuff” states an unresolved conclusion’. Even this feels intentionally listless for such arresting work, like a child trying to explain why they shaved the cat. It hints at the domestication of pathologies that Friedman expounds in his materials. ‘And stuff’ is the scurfy scratchings of existence: the wrappers, shavings, trimmings, and off-cuts of everyday life. ‘Monster Collage’ is a massive collection of magazine cuttings – predominantly fleshy surfaces – incised meticulously so that no form is definite, and dotted with tufts of the artist’s hair. Like the scene in a film where we stumble upon the serial-killers dingy lair, wallpapered with newspaper clippings – this collage – along with the others in this exhibition – propound an inhuman, ritualised dedication to a purpose, replete with the sacrificial, almost mutilating act of cutting ones own hair for the cause. That this purpose, this cause, should be merely the making of a piece of art is all the disappointment and arch-ness I need as a viewer. Directly opposite this collage is a vast text piece. At first glance, it appears to be a giant, Crayola-scrawled sentence on a big sheet of paper – in reverse. Reminiscent of the boy in ‘The Shining’ and his prophetic doodle ‘REDRUM’; this reversed, childish writing decries some empowering, masterful slogan – undermined by the shoddy hand and the spelling mistakes. ‘The Supreme One’ is, in fact, a meticulously rendered copy of a shoddy scribble in precise graphite, only revealed to the more attentive viewer. This paradoxical execution of potentially very simple, very unskillful tasks in a ludicrously scrupulous, painstaking way is another of Friedman’s more familiar tropes; but one which immediately endears him: he is not really showing off – it takes your own investigation and complicated empathy to discover his mastery. It’s interesting however, that a number of the works in this exhibition are less keen to reveal their secret, less ready to resolve the pun just yet. The monsters in particular lack the rationality that characterized so much of Friedman’s early work. Chaos has begun to tempt Friedman, and consequently the hypothetical stringing together of complicated, digressive theories. Friedman’s work functions cumulatively, snowballing via a synaptic path through his own neuroses.
The reason, I think, that I stopped caring so much about Friedman’s work, was not because of his adolescent infatuations (bubblegum, pubic hair, monsters, games), but because he did not have the courage of his convictions in order to fully explore them. The ‘failure’ of his work was always couched in a cynicism that could not be delivered from the guilt and the insularity of the artist; a social impotence exemplified by his anal, white-cubed sanctity. ‘Monsters and stuff’ succeeds because it is free, funny, exploratory and weirdly sincere – the puns and the arch-concepts no longer suffocate the aesthetic. There is no need for an excuse to make these things, only an understanding. It is this essentially political freedom that might well draw me back to Tom Friedman.
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