BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 09 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 30

Chuck Close and Tom Friedman

BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 09 SEP 96

The fascination with rendering minutiae in order to create physically complex images is the immediate and visually obvious bridge between artists Chuck Close and Tom Friedman. However, the paternal pairing of their technically obsessive careers is a didactic device; the real consequence of this exhibition lies in the conceptual purlieu where the 'son' maligns the artistic convictions of the 'father'.

Close, a fixture of New York's art establishment, engages with the debate of representation and the role of the painter in the shadow of photographic technology that has been running since the 19th century. Employing the monumental scale of the New York School, the dispassionate mechanics and modular grid of Minimalism and the commonality of subject matter adopted by the Photorealists, Close has, over the last 30 years, developed a synthetic programme steeped in the vocabulary of artistic production.

Like a true researcher, he continues to cultivate hybrid images, and he has stringently dedicated his career to studying perception with some spectacular results. For example, his recent grisaille portraits studies move lyrically between flat grey brush marks and laugh lines, digital imaging technology and Roman portraits, Sol LeWitt and Jackson Pollock. Even though Close never strays far from his rigid conceptual formula, he continues to inform the infrastructure of contemporary art practice.

Bungee jumping off Close's hierarchical framework, Friedman free-falls through the materials of the everyday. His manic preoccupation with self-determined activity has resulted in an impressive collection of ironic art objects. In the context of this exhibition, his minuscule bits of different coloured Play-Doh rolled and stuffed into an easy-to-swallow medicine capsule, or a carefully spiralled pubic hair stuck on the surface of a bar of soap, ironically belittle Close's lofty engagement with abstract realism.

This disparagement is comically illustrated by Friedman's untitled self-portrait carved into an aspirin: a sculptural gesture even smaller than one of the thousands of abstract daubs of oil paint that comprise Close's painting Alex (1991). Meek and capable of dissolving in high humidity, Friedman's little-aspirin-that-could repudiates the officiousness of the colossal portraits holding on to the gallery walls.

The quirky commitment to the expenditure of time needed to carve his likeness in an analgesic, or to write every word of an English dictionary on a 36 inch square piece of paper, or to create a table-top sculpture with 30,000 wooden toothpicks, forces the viewer to prioritise activity in a society desperately searching for more hours in a day. This is a crucial concept in Friedman's work and it is why he and his young contemporaries, like Joe Scanlan, Sarah Lucas and Jason Rhodes, are currently receiving notoriety for their investigation into the routine of the everyday. It is a preoccupation found equally in popular culture: comedian Jerry Seinfield and domestic aesthete Martha Stewart both base their material on the perversions of free time.

Friedman compels us to consider our own activities: the time we allocate to our jobs, our own self-determined occupations and the satisfaction we acquire as a result of these actions. His work promotes a sense of homemade/handmade accomplishment and inspires us to make time in our lives to glean pleasure and beauty from the abundance of materials that permeate our day-to-day existence.

Close works in the official language of visual culture. Friedman works in the visceral world of a new generation. Juxtaposed in the same gallery, Friedman's benign gestures confidently challenge the legitimacy of Close's rhetoric while the faces of Alex, John, Lucas and Roy convey the critical unease of a parent looking over their child's shoulder. The parallels between the pixellated bits of tone laid down by Close's hand and the delicate dexterity exercised by Friedman are the clearest and perhaps only discernible affinities between the two artists. However, celebrating generational differences and highlighting new priorities in contemporary art production makes for a more interesting exhibition than one that simply underscores superficial similarities. After all, the bungee cord always recoils.

Michelle Grabner is an artist, curator and professor in the Department of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is Director of the exhibition spaces The Suburban in Milwaukee, USA and the Poor Farm in Wisconsin, USA.