Charley Friedman is a badass artist and a heck of a guy. We met at the Good World on Orchard Street, and discussed art and life over Stoli martinis. Joe Heaps Nelson: The main thing I always appreciated about your work is its sense of humor. Another thing I find interesting is the way you jump so freely between media. What can you tell me about your process, and how do you bring your ideas to fruition?
I've never really been inspired by materials. I've always been inspired by ideas and sensations, so I try to find the best punishment to fit the crime. Materials can be limiting in terms of being able to express yourself. I try to find the lowest common denominator, that best communicates what I want to communicate. I kind of like working on 2 or 3 pieces at the same time, and having them bounce off each other. But my life these days, with the kid, that's not always possible. So I jump around between my sketchbook, something that's focused on the physical world, and something in space. Humor... it's the only material that's malleable on many different levels, It's not one thing or the other. The great thing about someone like Richard Pryor, is you can talk about the underbelly. I'm into LIFE! I think my work is about life. I want people to be able to empathize with what I'm up to. I want them to be able to internalize it. OK? So the best way I think to do that is by doing something they can relate to, and humor tends to work the best, at least for me. JHN: Because it's for everybody?
CF: Humor isn't for everybody, but I guess that's the other part. I want to make things where first you feel, and then you think about that. By feeling the piece, you think about what that means to you.
JHN: You live and work in Brooklyn. When did you come to New York?
CF: I came here in 1996, October.
JHN: OK, so more than 10 years. But you are originally from Lincoln, Nebraska, and right now you are enjoying a show in your home town and it's kind of a mid-career retrospective ~ it's Charley Friedman's Greatest Hits. How does it feel to have a big, triumphant, gigantic show in your home town?
CF: It's great! It's like... the nerd returns, or something. I grew up at the Sheldon. It's the first museum I ever came across any kind of art, and it has some of the most kickass pieces. They have a fantastic, varied collection. For me, my first epiphanies came there. For me, to come home is a great thing. I love the building, I love the collection. To have so many people I grew up with, friends, my family, schoolteachers, come and see everything is great. That's a real Charley thing, you know, kind of full circle. Now, as an artist, it's incredible to see 12 years of stuff that I've been doing together. It allows people to see the thread that's going through the work. Even though it seems very different, it relates to each other. JHN: Also, it's a vast space!
CF: It is a huge space. It's a Philip Johnson building. The first room is a big, great hall, Philip Johnson's wet dream, a big, marble foyer with gold leaf ceilings. I have these Miro pieces that I did in there, JHN: I was just about to ask about those.
CF: I have 6 pieces in the big room, and the great thing about that is, they are next to these great high modernist sculptures, Noguchis and Brancusis. Dan Siedell, the head curator, the way he curated them was so that first you see the Miro next to the sculpture. It didn't occur to me to do it that way, because in the show, at Barbara Mathes Gallery, I wanted the anatomies to be seen first. It seemed to make more sense. But in this space, the Miros made sense, because of the presence of the sculptures and the modernist nature of the whole place. JHN: Were those Miros originally sculptures, or drawings or paintings that you turned into sculptures?
CF: Miro never made sculptures out of those things. They were paintings that were flying in his weird, surrealist universe. JHN: Charley turned 'em around and on the other side he painted the guts! Lungs, intestines and the works. How did you get that idea?
CF: I was at the Bemis Center in Omaha, and I was rummaging through their junk space and I found this old lithograph, of this Miro painting. At that point it was kind of kitsch. It seemed kind of cool, so I took it, and just sat with it, for a couple years. I knew I wanted to make it bigger. But the key is, how can I add to what Miro did, without making your basic ready-made, and add something that would be an homage to what he did, but take his pieces and go down a road he never imagined. Basically, nothing he did was about representation.
JHN: Well, since his early work.
CF: Yeah, he was trying to get rid of anything remotely realistic. He never thought about blood and guts. It was fun! So, for every sculpture i had to think about which came first, the chicken or the egg. So, Miro is really the first, but with guts, the function determines the shape, so it's kind of reversing the process of the thing ~ how would the kidneys or intestines fit inside his figure, without changing it at all. JHN: Well, talking about Lincoln, Nebraska, when I was a punk rock kid growing up in Des Moines, we enjoyed going to Lincoln. It sure was a cool town and we got along well with those kids.
CF: If you want the base roots, I think that my work is really inspired in punk. The whole idea of creative anarchy struck a note in me, and it never ended. To find out all my heroes had no idea what they were doing was a great inspiration! Public Enemy, Sex Pistols, Talking Heads... everybody. And the punk rock favorites we grew up with, Baby Hotline, Power of the Spoken Word ~ going to those concerts was a great release for me. JHN: Well you are one of those artists who will use anything. Sometimes you use yourself, sometimes you use your mom... What makes these pieces different from your sculpture?
CF: I love materials, but i also love performancy things. As an artist, my first mission is a communicator, and it's my job... I don't want people to have to read some paragraph explaining what the piece is about. JHN: That's what I'm talkin' about!
CF: Forever and ever, I don't think an artist is really doing their job if someone has to come along and really explain the stuff. Whatever I do, if someone can't understand it on some level, whether it's a visceral thing, or an artworld inside thing like the Felix Gonzalez Torres candy, you can get some aspect of it, in a real way, and want to finish the narrative. I'm making the art I want to see. Not the art that's truly marketed for a gallery. I still don't have a gallery! Some galleries that I really respected have toyed around with me, but no one really jumps! Maybe it's because I'm about 10 years old or something. But I feel like I'm doing my job. The most pleasurable moment for me was having the Felix Gonzalez Torres video up. Of almost all the pieces in the show, that's where people really gravitate. That was the piece that I thought would be the riskiest piece, that people would say "I don't get this", but they were into it.
JHN: Do you have any favorites from American literature, and if so, how does their influence affect your work?
CF: This is going to sound sappy... but the first person who comes to
mind is John Irving. JHN: Really?!?!?
CF: It is odd! But I think in John Irving's best work, he makes the quirky ordinary. He's so much about life. He loves the idea of portraying a life in a beautiful, long narrative, like Dickens. And that's what I love. JHN: Well I asked you because I consider you a spectacularly American artist.
CF: I do think I'm an American artist. I think my work has a populist stance, and Irving is a populist writer. There's a lot of nuance in Irving, and he's kind of schmaltzy, but he likes his perverted sexual stuff. JHN: Well who doesn't?
CF: He creates these characters and goes all through their lives, maybe some things are pulled out of his life, but the things that seem ordinary in his books he makes metaphorical.
JHN: Like a guy getting his dick chomped off when he's getting a blow job, by the husband, in another car?
CF: Yeah! Exactly! Or getting his ear bitten off. Or a guy with a screechy voice who ends up being this weird prophet, I love that.
JHN: How did you train your mom to put on a sign that says "Mom"?
CF: There's no training involved! I just said I wanted to take a picture of her, and she said "OK, honey boy, just let me know when and where." She was out in the garden. My friend Tom Irvin helped me make the M's. I glued them to a piece of drywall, cut an O between the 2 M's, and hung it from the garage. I said, "Mom, I'm ready, stick your head through the hole," and I took the photograph.
JHN: What a mom, what a mom.
CF: The real story is, I had taken a photograph of my dad, and my brother said, "Charley, you really ought to take a photograph of Mom." I said "Fuck! I'm an artist! You can't tell me what to do!" So that night, I thought, OK I'll take a picture of my mom, and that's the idea I came up with. The Anatomy of Charley Friedman is at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. It opened May 11 and runs through August 12, 2007.