The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue

Barbara Friedman: The Hysterical Sublime

Barbara Friedman, <em>A Blooming, Buzzing Confusion</em>, 2022. Oil in linen, 37 x 28 inches. Courtesy the artist.
Barbara Friedman, A Blooming, Buzzing Confusion, 2022. Oil in linen, 37 x 28 inches. Courtesy the artist.
On View
The Hysterical Sublime
August 19–September 5, 2023
Brooklyn, NY

In the Metamorphoses, Ovid describes the world before creation as a kind of chaos, “all rude and lumpy matter, / Nothing but bulk.” Chaos itself comes from the Greek for gulf or chasm and an earlier root for yawn or gape; so, in its original sense, chaos was not a state of disorder, but a condition of potential, describing the qualities of vastness rather than the vigor of change. If there is a chaos in Barbara Friedman’s new paintings, it is just that: a maw of possibility, full of glistening teeth, gums, and tongues, eyes peering out, each one the beginning of a world.

Friedman told me that she starts these paintings by laying taut canvases on the floor, wetting them and then pouring layers of thinned oils onto their surfaces. Once everything is poured, she opens the windows of her home studio, quickly sheds her respirator, and closes the door. It is no coincidence that she began this method of working during the pandemic. The canvases undergo a certain quarantine, offgassing while they dry in uncertain ways; and when Friedman reenters the studio, days later, she is faced with chaos, a room full of color filling its given parameters in ways unimaginable at the outset. Unattended, oil and mineral spirits form rivulets that infiltrate every crack in their substrate, but since Friedman’s canvases are so smoothly gessoed, the pigment has nowhere to accumulate, and it is subject to its own nature. There are also chunks of pure paint that have made it out of the pouring can unmixed and drop, matter-of-fact, onto the canvas. They might as well be debris—unprocessed, unnamed—polluting the picture field, bringing it into the third dimension. They act like islands or mineral outcroppings, affecting the flow of everything around them.

Barbara Friedman, <em>Mouse King</em>, 2021. Oil on linen, 44 x 37 inches. Courtesy the artist.
Barbara Friedman, Mouse King, 2021. Oil on linen, 44 x 37 inches. Courtesy the artist.

When Friedman opens the door onto these abstractions, she is faced with a game of recognition, a necessary reading of the clouds that formed in her absence. What to make of poured color that has hardened into suggestive voids? A cosmos. With the bare minimum of marks, Friedman locates characters and stories within those suggestive compositions. In one painting, a hairy network of tributaries becomes a walrus’s mustache, and in another, Friedman adorns two wandering drips with a shell, transforming them into snail eyes. Elsewhere, she gives a dark glob of oil wings, legs, and bright red eyes—it is a fly stuck in that tumultuous surface.

Friedman’s alterations are surprisingly spare. Most of the work is in the recognition, in the nebulae of those primary layers, of some sort of creature. There is something beyond anthropomorphism at play here, an actual imposition of life onto minerals, using decoration as designation (cosmetic comes from the Greek, to order). In Mouse King (2021), Friedman has merely added a pair of black eyes; everything else—fur, snout, whiskers—was there in the first uncontrolled layer. Out of sight, yellow, green, and crimson pigments began to settle in an even layer, but something about the relative densities of their suspensions caused the whole surface to break and, slowly, puddles, ridges, and flood plains formed. Friedman takes that distant geology and, with a few finishing touches, forces you to consider it horizontally, as another body in the room.

Barbara Friedman, <em>Why the Chicken Crossed the Road</em>, 2023. Oil on linen, 37 x 44 inches. Courtesy the artist.
Barbara Friedman, Why the Chicken Crossed the Road, 2023. Oil on linen, 37 x 44 inches. Courtesy the artist.

In Ovid’s chaos, before gods intervened, there was “one face of nature in all the world.” We are forced to describe the unknown in terms that are familiar to us, as our imagination draws from our memory and experience. Friedman gives agency over to her materials, which allows for compositions and subjects that simply could not be planned beforehand, as in the enigmatic picture of a vexed chicken, mid-stride, wagging its scrawny arm toward some invisible foe. On its back, riding with mischievous glee, is some dark furry creature, its spine a winding crack in the painting’s tectonics—two eyes and sketched-in paws turn that mass into something with real character. I am hesitant to describe Friedman’s hand as an arbiter in this world, but we are seeing what she points out to us. It is more like we are able to participate in her wonder, as each flourish encourages us to find some empathy in those strange formations.


Louis Block

Louis Block is a painter based in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues