Hero/Anti-Hero: Barney vs. Friedman and Vice Versa 
Tom Friedman

Tom Friedman - Toothpicks (1995)

Matthew Barney and Tom Friedman are both living contemporary American artists in their late 30s. At first glance this appears to be the only similarities we can strike between the two artists. Barney's work is monumental and grandiose, while Friedman tends toward the anti-monumental and introverted. But if we can get by this difference, and also major points of divergence in methodology, materials, and scope, we find that their ultimate goal is similar: to defer any ultimate conclusions in lieu of invoking a vicarious sublimation in the observer related to an elemental and obsessive biological need to resist death or disorder.

Both artists are able to overcome these implausible challenges and risks by use of brute potential. This is the driving force behind Barney’s Cremaster and is reflected in numerous commanding and visceral manifestations, such as Richard Serra slinging molten Vaseline against the descending spiral ramps of the Guggenheim, or a mock demolition derby in the basement of the Chrysler building. Friedman’s potential energy resides in sheer dedication to iteration and repetition. Similar to both is the will and devotion necessary to overcome the speculative obstacles and actually execute what others may have dreamed of, but never carried through to completion.

Anything in Barney’s world is fair game. He utilizes many rich and seemingly disparate metaphors, myths, and abstract objects to sculpt his pieces. Barney reigns as supreme creative master of his domain, characterized by his exclusive ability to climb between symbolic levels and be the sole contestant in a self-created competition to overcome self-imposed obstacles. In Friedman’s laboratory, he plays “both the scientist and the experimental subject.” Friedman’s is a lonely and painstaking world of prolonged staring, collecting his own biological samples, or stealing balls—all of which we vicariously relive when viewing this evidence—whereas Barney surrounds himself with supermodels, condemned murderers, motorcycle races, sky scrapers, punk bands, and famous actors. There is no lack of entertainment value in Barney’s work, but little in the way of humor. Many consider Friedman’s work to be comedic, but at times (when stripped up of its context) sensually sterile.

The theme of transformation prevails in both artists’ work. For Barney this entails “moving backward in order to escape one’s destiny.” In Cremaster 2, the character of condemned killer Gary Gilmore, played by Barney, seeks to free himself (in analogy to his alleged grandfather Houdini) from his fate by choosing execution. Friedman’s transformations typically involve deconstruction and rebirth, such as Untitled, 2001, a self-portrait comprised of an out of focus mosaic of the original image. Friedman’s tendency is to transform the ordinary into the unexpected, whereas Barney amalgamates and distills the extraordinary down to the primal. He mutates abstraction down to minimal literation (in all of the Cremaster series, there is only 12 lines of dialogue), whereas Friedman transforms the literal into the abstract (for example, in Everything, 1992-1995, he painstakingly writes every word of the dictionary onto one sheet of paper). Both extremes blur the boundaries between object and absence of object as one and the same.

Another obvious difference is that of materials and composition. It seems both Barney and Friedman are retaliating to living in an artistic period where all possible materials and media have been saturated. Barney employs artificial materials (Vaseline, plastics, blue Astroturf, hired actors) to represent functional biological metaphors. Friedman uses regular household products (duct tape, tooth picks, cereal boxes, soap) and biological by-products (chewed gum, feces, pubic hair) and puts them on a pedestal to repurpose them into dysfunctional abstraction. In the end, both exploit biological function to create fantastic forms, and “transcend biology [to] exist in a pure state of symmetry.

Regardless of whether one is a self-proclaimed hero and the other an anti-hero, both are true living heroes. Granted, both are unabashed egomaniacs who cast themselves into their own work of self-induced aesthetic confinement in the name of exploring primitive creative processes. Friedman’s works spark “a complex system of references.” whereas Barney takes an infinitely complex and seemingly unrelated system of suggestive metaphors and equates them to one common goal—the male Cremaster muscle, symbolic of the creation process. Depending on your frame of reference, it is arbitrary whether we call the big bang an implosion or an explosion. The net effect for both Friedman and Barney is to go through extreme measures of transformation by way of self-deprecation and uncompromising commitment to challenge the observer vicariously in conquering, or at least prolonging, mortality.



(c) 2003 by Derek White






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