New York

Tom Friedman, Blue Styrofoam Seascape, 2014, paint, Styrofoam, 45 3/8 × 63 1/2".

Tom Friedman, Blue Styrofoam Seascape, 2014, paint, Styrofoam, 45 3/8 × 63 1/2".

Tom Friedman

Tom Friedman, Blue Styrofoam Seascape, 2014, paint, Styrofoam, 45 3/8 × 63 1/2".

Tom Friedman tells a story about hitting a creative dry patch back in grad school: Feeling stuck and out of ideas, he decided to completely empty his studio, wall off the windows, and paint the room totally white, from floor to ceiling. This evacuation complete, he began bringing objects and materials into the space, one at a time, to focus on a kind of Cagean project of close, sustained attention to the material conditions of individual artifacts and substances.

Across his twenty-five-year career, Friedman has steadily filled up the epiphanic physical and theoretical space he cleared out for himself with a delirious swarm of deftly imagined, technically virtuosic, and, in many cases, mind-bendingly illusionistic constructions—his can’t-be-but-are things operate along the fuzzy boundaries between thinking and making, alternately entangling and disentangling a wide range of relationships between native matter and summoned form, between the constituent and the whole. Friedman’s recent show at Luhring Augustine’s Bushwick space—only his second solo in a New York gallery in the past decade—once again found the artist in something of an emptying-out mode. With a title, “Paint and Styrofoam,” that also described the full range of media he used to produce the fifteen works that were on view, the show suggested a transitional moment, one conducted under a kind of Oulipian constraint. And its centerpiece group of fifteen “sculptures of paintings,” as the artist has referred to the hybrid wall-based forms he is currently constructing, demonstrated the signal tension in his sensibility—usually, if not always, positively generative—between the calculating material fastidiousness of the engineer and the conceptual generosity of the philosopher-auteur.

A large part of the appeal of Friedman’s work over the years has been its wry sense of humor, one that balanced funny ha-ha and funny strange in ways that worked to open up epistemological (and ontological) fault lines in our sensory relationships with the world of things. Such jocoserious tendencies are visible in the perfect muteness of Moot (all works 2014), for instance, a hyperreal life-size trio (stringless acoustic guitar, microphone, stool) that proposes the equipment for an intimate concert of silence; in the tiny Cyclopean eye of See, a minuscule eyeball wedged in the opposite corner of the room like a downscaled, anthropomorphized recasting of his untitled gum-ball piece of 1990; and in the improbable Purple Balloon, a doppelgänger object so precisely resembling its subject that it thwarts the usual circuitry of signifier and signified. I can report that it also responded to the environment’s physical conditions with remarkable exactitude, gently swinging away before a puff of breath—one surreptitiously directed at it by a visitor trying to elude the watchful eye of the gallery attendant who shadowed the space, ever-vigilant in her scanning for overly haptic doubting Thomases.

If these works felt very much of a piece with the rampant eclecticism of Friedman’s general program, the set of sculpted monochrome paintings that are clearly the chief preoccupation of his current practice marked out what is, for him, an unusually narrow and consistent basis for experimentation. Though the works are full of provocative either/or oscillations between the material identities in play (is the delicately crazed surface of Light Gray Mudscape a painterly or a sculptural effect? Is the hashed facade of Red Sun the result of an applied surface or of a disturbance of the ground?), the sort of guessing-game spectatorship they ultimately prompt feels surprisingly slack theoretically and strangely attenuated in its affect. Friedman’s extraordinary knack for coaxing apparently unartistic matter into unanticipated artistic substance was here extended (reduced?) to making things that looked like Artworks. Whether sui generis in their content, like Bloom, with its faint sunburst, or Kid, with its winking burlap grin; or citational, like Night, in whose black slick lurked van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Blue Styrofoam Seascape, bisected by a Sugimoto horizon, Friedman’s sculpture-paintings finally feel like recursive exercises primarily designed to size up the space between his highly unorthodox forms and more conventionally “artistic” artifacts. Viewers who have long admired his drolly innovative disregard for the latter will imagine that their deployment here is strategic one, a moment of sustained attention to a particular form that’s more of a means to understanding it than an artifactual, or conceptual, end.

Jeffrey Kastner