“I just want real reactions. I want people to laugh from the gut, be sad from the gut, or get angry from the gut.” —Andy Kauffman
Reactions from the gut are scarce in the contemporary art world. Dealers, curators, and collectors simply don’t trust their gut, fearing it provides insufficient grounds to judge the quality of art. And many artists—as well as critics—presume that the goal of serious art is to address social, political, or cultural ideas, discourses or theory— not the gut.
Yet, the gut is where our emotional life simmers with our deepest desires, fears, regrets, and hopes. It is what St. Augustine called, “the stomach of the mind,” where our memories and thoughts are churned over and digested.
The gut also requires time. The experience of a work of art can continue long after it is seen. It can insinuate itself into our consciousness, become a part of our psychological and emotional life. And for nearly six months I have been digesting my experience of Charley Friedman’s exhibition at Miami’s Gallery Diet. I have a long history with the artist, having followed his work for over two decades and working with him on a museum project nearly eight years ago. So this little exhibition in January was much more than simply another six-week gallery show that is forgotten as soon as it closes. It has made me reflect on the twenty-year arc of Friedman’s career and its impact on my emotional and intellectual life.
To work from the gut—either as an artist or a critic—also requires considerable vulnerability and risk—it’s my gut, my half-cooked emotional life, my fears and hopes—because my response may not be your response, may not be the “right” response. It may expose my feelings and emotions, reveal me to be incompetent or foolish. In the contemporary art world, as it often is in many other creative industries, what makes a work of art (film, painting, poem, song) “good” or “important” is always in doubt. It is wiser and safer to rely on other, allegedly more “objective” indicators of value than one’s gut.
But this vulnerable and risky emotional experience is where Charley Friedman’s work dwells, forging through fear, doubt, and even skepticism to offer extraordinarily close emotional relationships with those who allow it to address their gut.
Friedman uses a conceptual and performance-based artistic framework that incorporates photography, painting, and sculpture that appears tightly wound around art, social, and political theory. But Friedman’s work invites a range of emotional responses that have less to do with the standard discourse of art than with the complex emotional experiences of daily life. Friedman’s emotional vulnerability gives his work a sense of authenticity and sincerity, but more than that; his work is generous. It opens toward the viewer, for the viewer.
Friedman’s Miami exhibition, The Western Code, was his fourth at Gallery Diet, a tight installation featuring paintings, photographs, and sculpture-like objects. It consisted of a room of small painted letters of the alphabet and numbers from zero to nine. It also included several modeled squirrels, unpainted, that are on the floor and wall of the gallery; a kinetic installation that twirled plastic beach balls; a photograph of the artist, nude, as an Hasidic Jew; a beautiful close-up photograph of a dandelion; and a odd, tiny, crudely hand-sewn figure (or creature) standing on a pedestal before a bright yellow-striped work on paper that was tacked to the wall.
In a statement about the exhibition, Friedman writes:
“The themes in my new body of work reflect my preoccupations with how individuals, nations and cultures form and transmit ideas and values. How we perceive each other and ourselves and how we invent systems to categorize our own egocentric worldview.
Although these are familiar themes for the contemporary art world, Friedman refuses to keep them where many artists are most comfortable—the abstract, intellectual, or theoretic level. Rather, he explores them as a means to reveal his vulnerability in an effort to connect with ours.
Friedman often explores his interest in personal and communal identity through Hasidic Judaism. In the photograph Chasid in the Woods (2015), Friedman performs the role of a Hasidic Jew. With beard, curl, and hat, he stands nude in a field. He carries what may be a Torah, and the sacred book’s primary use as a cover for his genitals is certainly significant.
He does not treat Hasidic Judaism as an abstraction, as a cipher for religious fundamentalism or reactionary separatism that is “out there” affecting others. It is a response to his own Jewish identity, and yet it is a role that he is not qualified to play. He is never Jewish enough for the Hasidic community. His nudity suggests his vulnerability as an outsider to this tightly knit religious community. Through Friedman’s own vulnerable role-playing, we are prompted to reflect on the roles we play, the costumes we wear, the curls we put in our hair (and in the hair of our children), the beards we grow, and the sacred books we use that protect ourselves from the risk that our personal and communal lives lack meaning and value.
Friedman has pursued this deeply personal approach to role-playing and performance in his photographic practice throughout his career. For example, in Untitled (Chuck Close), 1998, Friedman impersonates the artist Chuck Close’s famous self-portrait drawing, mimicking the artist’s arrogance and self-confidence. Several years later, Friedman expands the range of this role-playing by imitating Chuck Close (or is he re-performing his own photographic event?) as his Hasidic alter ego in Untitled (Chasid), 2008. Friedman’s vocational identity as an artist (although, according to the art world, not yet a “real” artist like Close) is further deepened through his cultural and social identity as Jewish (although not a “real” Jew according to Hasidism). Both alter egos suggest the importance of these social roles and his struggle to fulfill them.
Friedman, however, does not confine his impersonations, role-playing, and performances to his photography. Over the past decade, he has played “Betsey Geffen,” an art gallery dealer who gives tours and tries to sell “Charley Friedman’s” work and “The Adenoid,” a gruff, pushy Jewish salesman. The latter is featured in a touching video performance, Felix, Flowers, Flags, and Poems (2001) that takes place in Chelsea with Rumi’s poetry and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s candies.
A more recent persona is “Bitzalel Friedemann, ” who seems to have emerged from Friedman’s photographic impersonations. In a 2013 performance at the Sheldon Museum of Art, this new alter-ego “koshers” the high modernist art museum designed by Phillip Johnson (whose relationship to anti-Semitism is acknowledged) in a ritual performance that transforms the Sheldon into a sacred Jewish “temple” by hanging mezuzahs and singing Shabbat Kiddush., transforming the Sheldon into a sacred Jewish “temple.” Then as he meets his wife and daughter in one of the galleries, he returns to “Charley” as they enjoy a meal together, further transforming the public gallery into the intimacy of a home, where new social roles are assumed. Through this performance the social roles of the audience are also transformed from museumgoers, to religious believers, to dinner guests. Each of these transformations suggests social roles should function not as means of division and separation but as a way to offer communal hospitality.
One of the more peculiar works in The Western Code is Looking Into the Sun (2012), a hand-sewn little creature standing on a pedestal, facing a large, bright yellow-striped work on paper. Perhaps the figure is wearing a suit, an old worn-out suit, like a football team mascot or a child’s fuzzy pajamas. Crouched and with outstretched hands, the figure appears to (or pretends) to create, conjure, or even venerate the work on the wall. Oblivious to the ridiculousness of his dramatic posture, the creature is engrossed in this shaman-like performance with unwavering confidence. The self-importance of this inflated gesture is softened by the presence of this little figure’s butt crack, making the endeavor endearing and lending it an innocence and vulnerability.
Friedman explored this experience of vulnerability and absurdity previously in Magic Powers (2011), a crudely formed nude figure who conjures some kind of power through his hands. The brilliance of this “trick” is tested by the figure’s embarrassing nudity—his black hairy armpits, pubic hair, and penis—which seems to contradict his claim to power.
And yet, despite their silliness, vulnerability, and absurdity—or, perhaps because of them—we trust these creatures and believe in their endeavors. In fact, Friedman creates the space for us to risk identifying with them. For Friedman, art is a magic trick. For it to work, both the artist and the viewer must believe it, must trust it. This is an important and abiding interest of Friedman’s—the self-delusion, impotency, vulnerability, and silliness of art. It would be too easy to regard this insight cynically, as if the artist is conning the viewer. Far from it, Friedman recognizes that his work, in order for it to “work” as art, depends on the viewer’s faith and willingness to believe in it. Friedman, however, always respects this risk to believe on the part of the viewer.
Perhaps this is to be expected from an artist who moved his family from Brooklyn to Lincoln, Nebraska just as his career as an artist was developing.
In The Western Code, several grey plasticine squirrels invade the gallery space, disrupting the pristine nature of the art gallery—breaking the illusion that the “white cube” is a cultural laboratory cut off from the banalities of day-to-day experience and emotional life. The squirrels might function as humorous ciphers for the emotional chaos and messiness of his personal life or even a reference to the constant presence of these creatures outside his studio in Nebraska. Humor is a crucial part of Friedman’s artistic practice, but it is rarely considered serious enough to be trusted in the contemporary art world. Aware of this distrust, Friedman also understands the power and mystery of laughter. The humor that saturates all of his work only becomes visible gradually, against the grain of the work of art’s presumed seriousness. In fact, Friedman’s humor only reveals itself fully to those who are willing to trust him. And moreover, the profound seriousness of his work is found precisely in and through its humor.
Friedman pursues this complex blend of emotions, risk, and vulnerability in Group Portrait (2013), which depicts he and his family not long after their move from Brooklyn to Nebraska. The family resembles fellow Midwesterner Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic, facing us in the snow, ice, and cold, standing in front of a large white utility van with “Friedman Realty and Conceptual Art” stenciled on its side—a van that transports supplies and art, as well as advertising their real estate business which helps them pay the bills. This “realty” becomes an important part of the “reality” for the artist and his family—a cold, vulnerable, and uncomfortable reality, one filled with the sacrifices and compromises of art and life and the multiple (and often competing) social roles that Friedman plays: artist, husband, father, financial provider, supporter of his partner’s own career as an artist. It is precisely this discomfort and vulnerability—smuggled in through humor—and brought about by the compression of these vocations and the pressure of living them in a new geographic location that Friedman sought. That the family maintains their Brooklyn apartment is a testimony to their desire to preserve the tensions, contradictions, and challenges of maintaining these social roles. According to the artist, he took several versions of this family portrait and decided on the one “he couldn’t bear to look at.”
From the beginning, with a smile
Friedman produced two early works while a resident at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1995, launching the trajectory of his career. As the artist recalls, surrounded by egocentric, professionally ambitious, and extremely talented young artists, he responded by experimenting with what he called “gestures of psychological and emotional resonance.” These aesthetic experiences (Friedman still hesitates to call them “art”) are defined less by the discourses of art than by his creative response to the community’s highly charged and serious emotional atmosphere.
In One-Hour Smile (1995), Friedman set up a video camera, turned it on, sat down, and looked into it. Then he smiled. And he kept that smile for an hour. Watching this performance was my first encounter with Friedman’s work nearly twenty years ago. His full, open, remarkably generous smile was subjected to the pain and suffering of muscle twitches, tears, and all manner of physical and emotional torture.
This simple but profound performance is not “about” being happy (or the absurdity of being happy or the analysis of being happy). There is no room for irony or cynicism, no room for the smile that is really a condescending smirk, or an inside joke. One-Hour Smile embraces suffering; in fact, the smile even causes it. It is the artist’s commitment, his willful decision to smile—as an artist as a human being—that is the very source of his pain. His earnestness, not unlike that silly creature in Looking into the Sun, wins us over, making us believe in the importance and power of this absurd and futile act. As we watch him suffer, we cannot help but suffer with him.
The smile is a risky artistic gesture in an art world that too often hides pain, fear, and vulnerability under a furrowed brow, a frown of cynicism, or irony and theory. That vulnerable smile has been in, with, and under all of Friedman’s work—you can see the smile in the naked Hasid, the arrogant Chuck Close, and the middle-aged artist in a corny winter cap standing in the cold and snow with his family. His work asks only one thing from us—trust. But to do so we must become emotionally vulnerable; we must expose our gut. Friedman’s work has, for over twenty years, respected the risk involved in this commitment. And over time, his work may enable us to smile through our own fragility, vulnerability, and pain. Now, that would be generous.
 St. Augustine, Confessions, Book X, xiv (21).