Tom Friedman has never been in a Documenta or a Whitney Biennial; you never see him posing seductively in those glossy magazine spreads, nor has he gotten the Dia or Parkett treatment. He’s as intriguing as Charles Ray, who has been afforded just about the whole nine yards, though Friedman’s ideas are less integrated into his work. A prolific tinkerer who has made more than 150 works in 10 years, Friedman is more involved with step-by-step visual thinking, and shies away from “major” pieces. Ray is first and last a sculptor; he dumbfounds you. Friedman, though he works in sculpture, is essentially a phenomenologist who can carry you away; his work is ephemeral, an ongoing experiment.
Originally from St. Louis, Friedman, 35, lives in Massachusetts, away from any art scene. He’s always worked at a high level, but his fifth solo exhibition at Feature surpasses his previous marks. Going beyond obsession, quirkiness, mind-boggling cleverness, and extreme labor intensiveness, his art has acquired a richer, more serendipitous, multidimensional quality.
Friedman’s exhibitions always build on certain themes and subthemes, so pieces play off and feed on one another. The works here include a superenlarged dollar bill, a similarly beefed-up cereal box, a line drawing suspended in space like a spiderweb, a little clump of colored Styrofoam balls, and, in something of a first, a showstopper: a life-sized paper replica of the mutilated artist himself in a pool of paper blood. Here, Friedman considers the metathemes of multiplication, magnification, visibility, and mortality, with subthemes of paper and drawing.
Three caterpillar things made from the artist’s hair and placed high on the walls like Artschwager’s famous blips announce one of his intermittent fascinations: insects (he has made tiny flies, ladybugs, spiders, and dragonflies). Insects present Friedman with paradigms that nature has already turned inside out; they move and socialize in alien ways, their skeletons can be on the outside, their mere presence can provoke creepiness or intrigue. These artificial bugs seem to move through Feature like foreign intelligences, inspecting things from unique and uniquely unknowable angles. I think they are stand-ins for the artist, who also tries to see things in fresh ways.
Friedman loves putting everyday materials to eccentric use. He’s worked with bubble gum, pubic hair, pick-up sticks, feces, toothpicks, laundry detergent, and Life Savers. He once exhibited an empty pedestal that had been cursed by a witch. Here, his materials are more conventional (mainly paper, polystyrene, and Styrofoam), though there’s one drawing made of an intricate network of spider legs glued to a piece of paper. Scientific, funny, exquisite, and strange, it’s like a Sol LeWitt by way of a little boy plucking the legs off an arachnid. More uncanny is a four-foot-high ghost sculpture of the artist, rendered in a brickwork of sugar cubes. A light dusting of sugar on the floor suggests this miniature golem—part man, part kachina—is simultaneously in formation and degenerating.
Friedman, who once said he liked to build things “from the atom up,” does nearly this in the terrific cat-sized cluster made of tiny painted Styrofoam balls. Looking at this irregular mass pulls you into a honeycombed universe; it’s like a piece of rogue DNA or sloughed-off skin. Nearby, a small mazelike cube made from a discontinuous grid of blue polystyrene suggests a matrix of minimalist space being formed, broken apart, and reconfigured.
In the alarming construction-paper rendition of the artist exploded and collapsed, Friedman looks at space in ways he never has before. Like the aftermath of a horrible accident, a mangled figure lies ripped to shreds, one leg bent back, the other separated and lying close by. The tibia and fibula are broken; you can see the twisted knee joint and femur. Entrails tumble out, and the heart—with aorta still attached—spills from the yawning chest cavity onto the floor. The jaw is blown off, the left hand is missing, a gray mass of brains is exposed through the shattered skull. Details include muscle, skin, tendons, hair, blue jeans ripped apart, jockey shorts, hiking boots still on the feet, the shoelaces undone. Mortality haunts this fragile piece; fascination guides the eye. I was transfixed by it. Echoing Vesalius’s extraordinary 16th-century anatomical drawings, arts-and-crafts paper projects, World War II and police evidence photographs, the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, a piñata, a medical model, and Duane Hanson’s 1967 motorcycle crash, this sensational sculpture is a tour de force.
Friedman is now thinking about life in the elaborate ways he thinks about materials, and considering the human body in much more emotional terms. Moving away from lightness or one-liners, he’s taking his art to a more human place. For longtime observers, this is akin to watching a prodigy grow up without losing his particular precocious genius.