- Gagosian Gallery
Each successful Tom Friedman piece produces a response in me that can only be described as protestful awe. His recent show at Gagosian gallery show offered twenty-six new works under the title of Monsters and Stuff. The work was, as we have come to expect from Friedman, phenomenally obsessive. His work often performs a nifty double take, it can appear casual and tongue-in-cheek, yet retain a sense of ambiguity, because something in each work isn't quite so. This acute vagueness repeatedly draws you in to rediscover a work and adjust your perception. A fairly traditional Friedman waited in the corner of one side room: a plank of wood with a faint smattering of polystyrene balls across it stubbornly floats and sways defying gravity. This is but one of many painful reminders of the lengths to which Friedman will go to fool us. The plan of the gallery explains that Light is made from just polystyrene and paint. The beam of wood is a beam of polystyrene that has been painted spectacularly with a wooden grain and as such, not being wooden, is light enough to be hung discretely from two strands of thread. Friedman creates one spectacle after another and presents his work much like a magician would.
A housefly rests too long on the gallery wall, we approach and find it to be an exquisitely handmade housefly, using paint, clay and wire, the fly is oversized slightly and is directed towards – in pursuit of perhaps – a tiny wooden carving of a figure who is running away further across this massive white plain of a wall. Copies of bugs – dragonflies, ladybirds, spiders, bees and bluebottles have featured in Friedman's work repeatedly. This tiny figure and large fly assemblage called Monster Fly is a real treat for viewers familiar with his work as it also references an older, untitled self-portrait where a painted figure carved from wood measuring just 6mm tall, stood with his hands at his sides in a neutral pose-less stance on the gallery wall. It is this same calm and neutral standing figure in a green top and blue trousers, a representation of Friedman, which now flees with panic from one of his own monstrous creations.
Self-portraits occur in various forms across Friedman's work and when present in his shows tend to act as a clue towards understanding the nature or the attitude of the other works present. They are revealing pieces that can also suggest what Friedman thinks or feels about his work. Monster Fly implies a narrative similar to that of Frankenstein, but perhaps illustrates a fear of some subjects mentioned within this show like the media, celebrity, god and visual jargon that I assume Friedman finds a little monstrous. Friedman's skills as a craftsman are rarely matched and result in fantastically powerful works. There are works in Monsters and Stuff, which explore more directly his interest in the role he plays as a creator. It is through exploration of this that I think the concept of Monsters has arisen. Who are Friedman's monsters? And what does he think of as monsters? This show involves the visually and conceptually saturated material of celebrity, god and pornography yet he remains ambiguous as to his personal opinions of these subjects, other than by titling the show Monsters and Stuff.
It has been perceived that Friedman works as an intelligent but misunderstanding outsider: that he approaches objects as if he doesn't know what they are for and uses them beautifully yet wrongly, testing their material qualities and not their intended use. His older works appeared to have been created by an artist with a childlike innocence, but now this persona of innocence has been replaced with the attitude of a cheeky and sarcastic adolescent, someone who wants to shout from the back of the classroom rather than just play with objects. His works now deliver much wittier punch lines and have a different kind of deadpan about them.
Pieces here laugh louder than his older works. A figure looms naked but for a pair of trainers in the corner of the main room, elongated to be almost three and a half meters tall with massive shoes and a tiny head. Constructed from tin foil, relevant body hair and paint Overseer is a dorky yet leering self-portrait.
Ridiculous and funny statements are shouted from the walls in two text pieces. In The Supreme One, written on an enlarged and reversed handwritten note, the author proclaims:
I AM THE SUPREME ONE!
YOU WILL DO AS I SAY!
IF YOU DON'T, YOU WILL
SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES!
Consequences is misspelt and hastily corrected, I laughed at this fumbled mistake enlarged to well over four meters long, as it seems that this failing to be superior is the joke and I continued with the show. It was only much later on that I returned to the glass-framed note for the mandatory, just in case, closer look. The note is enlarged so much that we read it from afar, yet it is only up close that we realise Friedman has actually drawn this massive piece of text. Meticulously with dark pencil, every bump, scratch and mark of the original note has been copied in to this hugely enlarged reproduction. It isn't a print of a silly comment it is another obsessive and demanding piece of work, an astonishing feat of drawing that once realised as such acts as the punch line of the text. The author has tricked us and is correct in his assertion of being the supreme one. The works seems to hum ‘I told you so'.
Original Sin is another enlarged piece of text displayed on the wall: in one side room black yarn stretched around nails form massive letters, which read
This cock-jawed out of place creation stands out immensely amongst such a prolifically created body of work and is a very stubborn phrase to try to interpret. Yet I think that Friedman wants us to pay attention to this – it doesn't seem throwaway. It is the only piece in which the artist speaks directly, and what he says, though perhaps immature or sarcastic is actually quite profound. It has a sense of shame and disgust about humans but could as easily be read as a hopeless expression, maybe they are the words of someone laughing at an unstoppable catastrophe.
In the triptych collage Monsters and Stuff a scattering of hybrids created from faces and body parts of people from celebrity and pornography magazines float around without interaction. The grotesque creations are both hideous and hilarious: Keanu Reeves has boobs and an erotic female mouth while elsewhere the head of a clueless Bill Clinton is perched atop a large black penis. These mutants drift in white space amongst handbags, burgers, wheels, mushrooms, crabs and more of Friedman's cut out scribbles. It is not implied by any means if these are to be laughed at or taken seriously; they are tragically funny.
Friedman is a better showman and seems far more restless with the everyday than he did a few years ago. Like a welcome virus, monsters have parasitically invaded his thinking and presence. They have personified his sense of humour, opinions and observations. They have dealt with the issue of his personal involvement by characterising his activities. With older works like 1000 Hours of Staring (1992-97)– a piece of paper the artist claims to have stared at for one thousand hours over a period of five years, we are desperate to know about the man while the blank paper is just a piece of paper. His work exists most dramatically as a myth, and we are intrigued more by the artist than the artwork. With monsters both in mind, and physically appearing around the exhibition, we think about the work less clinically and appreciate the more chaotic parts. Each work is not merely another great feat of construction, but a character with narrative, I'm still in awe, only now I'm laughing, and I'm thinking about monsters.