Reviewed by Michael S. Gant
SEEMINGLY, there is no material so mundane that artist Tom Friedman cannot turn it into a visual surprise. He takes yellow wooden pencils, cuts them into sections and then glues them together end to end to create odd pointy sculptures that zigzag to the ceiling. From nothing more than jettisoned pieces of cardboard emerges a towering headless robot (reminiscent of Michael Salter's Styrobot, recently on display at the San Jose Museum of Art). A floating body out of a magic trick consists of multicolored packing peanuts.
Friedman's art is often conceptual, dependent entirely upon the wall label for context; we have to take the artist at his word when he tells us that the blank piece of paper titled 1,000 Hours of Staring is really a piece of paper that he stared at for 41-plus days. The end point of process art shows in a perfectly smooth large ball of chewing gum neatly held in a gallery corner by its own elasticity. Does it matter that the artist personally chewed all 1,500 pieces of gum required to finish the work? It is still a fascinating object and fulfills what Arthur C. Danto, in the introduction to this large-format retrospective of Friedman's work, calls the "transfiguration of the commonplace ... making from what no one has to ask about, something about which no one quite knows what to say." In a more obviously jokey way, Friedman sculpted a minute ball of his own excrement and gave it a place of honor on a white pedestal—a tired provocation for viewers appalled by Serrano's Piss Christ and Chris Ofili's elephant-dung paintings.
At his best, Friedman is a prodigiously talented manipulator of materials: with nothing more than scissors and construction paper, he can conjure up a full-size, 3-D sculptural tableau. From strips of newspaper held together with wheat paste, his Zombie is a walking nightmare, shredding press clippings as it goes. This collection is amply illustrated with full-page reproductions about more than 200 of Friedman's works. (By Arthur C. Danto and Ralph Rugoff; Yale University Press; 320 pages; $85 hardback)
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