Tom Friedman, Master of Lo-fi Art, Talks About His New Work and Technology's "God-Like" Future

"Sem título (sol)," 2012, Tom Friedman
(Cortesia do artista e Luhring Augustine, Nova York)

At artist Tom Friedman’s upcoming Luhring Augustine show "New York," opening this Saturday, February 11 (the artist’s first outing with the gallery), a video camera will be keeping a watchful eye on visitors. This unmanned camera looks real, but it’s actually a trompe l’oeil ploy by Friedman, laboriously handmade out of wood. The work is at once funny and subtly critical: the artist watching those who watch his work. It is notably more edgy than some of the artist's other famous work, which has generally involved ingeniously processing ordinary materials like tinfoil or cereal boxes into sculptures that are at once ordinary and delightful. In a recent phone interview, Friedman gave ARTINFO a peek into the thought process behind his diverse collection of new sculptures.

Can you talk a little bit about what you’re planning for your upcoming show at Luhring Augustine?

Let’s see, there are 12 or 13 pieces. They’re new works. It’s my first show with Luhring Augustine. I was working with Gagosian, then left Gagosian and started working with Stephen Friedman from London, who I’d been working with before. Then I was looking for a New York gallery, and I really liked Luhring Augustine’s program.

Did they help develop the show at all, or was it more just work that you had already been developing?

We had agreed on a date for the show, and the show took maybe a little over a year to produce. But it’s pretty much open. Usually the galleries don’t tell me what kind of things to do. They’ll come and do studio visits, and we’ll talk about the artwork a bit — that’s helpful for me. The pieces in the show are all very disparate, as is usual with my work. I tend to enjoy the relationships between things through their differences.

You have a few different formats in the show, from sculptures to drawings on paper.

Right. I’ve been working more with Styrofoam and paint. I love the material. It’s very easy to use in so many different ways. You can carve with it, you can cut it down paper thin, and it takes paint very well. And it’s light.

I also have a wood piece that I made. I’ve never really worked in wood. I made a video camera that’s made entirely out of wood and then painted it a stealth gray. Before I made a camera on a tripod — the video camera’s on a tripod as well — that was all painted black. It just sort of sat around, but I liked the idea that maybe the photographer had left the room and is getting ready to document the work. It kind of becomes invisible in a way, and the video camera has a different presence. I want it to be something that might be a little more invisible. A camera has a different quality — there needs to be someone to take the picture — but the video camera could be turned on, surveying. So it has more of a presence of possible documentation and voyeurism. I’m hoping, before they realize it’s not real, that it might heighten a visitor's sense of awareness. I want the camera to be kind of in the distance, so it takes you awhile to get there. It would be placed in a way that it’s inconspicuous, so it seems like it was meant to be there.

You talk about voyeurism and recording devices. What’s your personal relationship with that kind of technology?

With technology, it’s more of an idea in terms of the future, and going from the present to the future. I think about it more in theory. I’ve always been interested in the future of technology and have done some writings that have to do with mapping out how we go from here to a completely obscure, kind of God-like state through technology. I think about technology as narrowing that gap between desire and fulfillment of that desire; they get closer and closer together through technology. The final thing is where desire and fulfillment of the desire just merge together. What is that?

People talk about the "singularity," the moment where humanity merges with machines, and there’s the instant fulfillment of any desire through technology.

Right. I’m also interested in taking the digital and trying to figure it out and making it analogue. Like some of the collage pieces I’ve done, or the enlarged boxes — I take a digital process and make it analogue.

There’s another piece, “Pixelated Static.” I dealt with static before with another piece, where I made a faux television set, and inside was a television screen and computer that projected an animated sequence of images of colored candy sprinkles that, when played, looked like color static. The recorded sound that played was made by shaking the sprinkles in a cake tin. In this piece, I chose this form of an old TV monitor that I carved out of Styrofoam. I had to carve it and sureform it and sand it down, so it has the shape, but it’s not a flat surface. It’s curved, or concave.

I wanted to create this illusion of static, so I took a photograph of television static and pixelated it. Then I went through a long, arduous process of gridding out the form, printing it out, then cutting out paint into squares matching the colors on the photograph and then gluing them onto the surface. It got really complex because of the curvature — it’s not a flat surface — so I had to figure out a way to create the grid so that it wrapped around. When you get to the edges, it’s not squares anymore; they start to become diamond-shaped. It was a lot of labor.

What makes you want to do all this very hands-on labor? What attracts you to that process?

It has to do with the momentum of my work. Having done it in the past, there’s just an enjoyment that I have of creating an experience, and I learn a lot through that. I see my work as being more about the experience of it — how you experience it piece to piece, and the body of work, the grouping — than the meaning of it. I think about how one would enter a gallery space — what’s the first thing they see, the next thing they see, how they accumulate the information, the assumptions that they bring to the experience, how that all comes together — and then how they digest it, and the memory that it leaves. I’m curious about that phenomenon. There’s a certain logic to thinking that way. Computer science deals with that kind of approach. It’s not methodical, though.

A lot of your work also has a really great sense of humor to it. Is that something you look for in the finished piece?

I think it’s more of a byproduct. I don’t really think about it so much. I’m really into absurdity; I’m not a sentimental person at all. For me, sentimentality reinforces the illusion, and good absurdity, for me, strips the layers, the filters, the assumptions that we have away. I think that, in a way, approaches good comedy: taking an overview and looking at the absurdity of things.

And the absurdity lets you understand it at a deeper level that you couldn’t before.

It’s like stepping back and seeing a bigger picture.

Tom Friedman's "New Work" will open at Luhring Augustine (531 West 24th Street) on February 11, and runs through March 17