October 27, 2020 through January 12, 2021
By JONATHAN OROZCO, December 2020
Firearms and eyeballs, an unlikely pair, come together in Panopticon, an exhibition of new works by Lincoln-based artist couple Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez and Charley Friedman. Originally from New York, both moved to Nebraska’s capital to find time and space. Influenced by American gun culture and the expansion of the surveillance state, the artists consider regulation and order, particularly over the last four years.
Their investigation begins with the show’s title - but what exactly is a panopticon? Well, in the 18th century a philosopher and social reformer named Jeremy Bentham proposed an alternative model to prisons with the intention of solving disciplinary problems with inmates. Panopticons, which takes its name from the Greek word for “all seeing,” were designed in such a way that prisoners, who would be housed on an outer cylindrical wall, could not see if they were being watched from a central control booth, which in turn, would encourage prisoners to regulate their own behavior. Though panopticons are associated with prisons, Bentham believed they were suitable for schools, hospitals and factories.
Friedemann-Sánchez refers to the panopticon through disembodied eyeball sculptures. Scattered throughout the gallery space, painted wood eyes are propped up with twigs and timber, often grouped in large free-form clusters. Lacking human corporal forms, these eyeballs take on biomorphic-like traits, especially near one another. “Bench Eyes,” for example, is composed of two carved wooden eyeballs of varying sizes on a weathered wood pedestal. It feels like you are being watched by a comical, De. Seuss-like creature that hides behind the pedestal. If it were to blink, it would do it one eye at a time.
Hans Bellmer’s sculptures were a starting point for Friedemann-Sánchez’s eyes. This German surrealist photographer took photos of Poupées, or dismembered female doll figures which he posed in domestic settings. The artist also takes inspiration from Byzantine and Etruscan art, all filtered through the subconscious.
In one amorphous grouping titled “Scaffold,” head-sized eyeballs are propped onto formless limbs, some with sharpened ends, others with painted earth-tone stripes, but all encircling a pre-Colombian vessel containing pointed tree branches. Are these eyes guardians of the jar? Are they preventing us from reaching out our arm and taking a branch? Or could they be passive creatures that watch as we move around them?
Surrounding these peculiar sculptures is a multi-piece work titled “Gun Show” that invokes American gun culture by Friedman. From one room to another, the gallery walls are covered with black cutouts in the shape of guns. Following in the graphic, cartoon-like style of the eyes, the guns range from real, to surreal, to almost totally abstract. Some are shaped like clouds, human viscera, 50s-style toy guns, islands, and even swiss cheese. And while they appear far removed and unusable, Friedman thoroughly investigates what guns mean in the United States.
What is the purpose of a gun? To Friedman, they are not that different to hammers – you can build a house with one, or smash someone’s skull. Since guns are not independent actors and require a human to activate them, they can be seen as devices for social control, especially in the United States, where mass shootings are so commonplace, hardly anyone bats an eye anymore when one happens.
But “Gun Show” has moments of surrealist humor besides introspection. One of the many mounted guns has been drilled through with multiple holes. They could have been made by an endless stream of bullets from a machine gun but could also be interpreted as swiss cheese. Another facet to this humor is the varying sizes of the guns – some are so tiny that they could fit perfectly into the hand of a newborn. This also speaks to American consumer culture since the guns are so stylistically diverse, that they could fit the individual tastes of any person.
At the center of the eyes and guns is a dragon-like creature named “Kill, Overkill, Super Overkill/Matar, Rematar, Reocontra Matar.” Friedemann-Sánchez, who titled the work in English and Spanish to connect the work with Latin America, used a Duchampian approach to fabricate the sculpture. She crafted this figure with found objects from South America and from around her own home. This figure is pierced by sharpened timber similar to those found in her eye cluster titled “Scaffold.” This dragon looks like it is exhaling its last breath, like a bull mortally wounded during a bullfight – all while surrounded by a wall of firearms and attentive, unblinking eyes.
Friedemann-Sánchez and Friedman both consider the formless, yet omnipresent panopticon we live in, but instead of a government spying and controlling us, we control ourselves through our complicity. There has been no victory to make the country safer from mass shootings, or legislation to dismantle the surveillance state – our panopticon. WM
Jonathan Orozco is an independent writer based in Omaha, Nebraska. He received his art history BA from the University of Nebraska Omaha in 2020. Orozco runs an art blog called Art Discourses, which primarily covers Midwest artists and exhibitions.view all articles from this author