Tripping Through an Artist’s Fabrications, from a Faux Art Movement to a Looney Tunes World

Matt Freedman is at heart a storyteller, working for years as a writer and cartoonist. Stringing together obtuse veins of thought, he fabricates alternate realities and histories.

Installation view of Matt Freedman: SLAP-STICK at Fjord Gallery, Philadelphia (all images by courtesy Fjord Gallery)

PHILADELPHIA — Matt Freedman’s SLAP-STICK at Fjord Gallery is a sort of ersatz retrospective. It spans much of his work from 2000–2017, but rather than discuss it as a “retrospective,” which Freedman says is “too grand a word, and too dispassionate,” he describes it instead as a “storeroom,” in which artworks are perched on thin stilts, leaning against walls, and strung from the ceiling. Projects jumble together with no discernable chronology. A village of lumpy, mismatched characters greets you at the door, while strange, jewel-toned monsters and creatures lurk beyond. A group of disembodied gray heads is stacked on a precariously teetering rack on top of a bunch of alien-animal hybrid creatures with long, protruding teeth, dressed in baby clothes; a pile of broken black umbrellas sits sullenly in a corner.

Freedman is at heart a storyteller, working for years as a writer and cartoonist. Stringing together obtuse veins of thought, he creates new meanings from familiar cultural narratives. He is unabashedly an “artist’s artist,” employing whatever medium seems to best suit the project at hand, from drawing and painting to rendered putty sculptures, to found object assemblages and performance. He approaches his work with a spirit of Dadaism, exploring chance, humor, cultural assumptions, and ridiculousness as a means of exposing truths. He describes the aim of the show as “a demonstration of our need to identify and privilege explanations in the face of ample evidence of the chaotic incoherence of our larger circumstances.”

A panoramic mural, titled “Acme Acme,” converts the gallery walls into a desert scene plucked from Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoons. This piece sets the tone for the show, transforming the space into the suspended reality of the Looney Tunes universe. Past its cheerful colors and wackily exaggerated shapes, there is an implied anticipation of ham-fisted disaster, comedic violence, or at the very least, a benign chaos. Leave your expectations at the door, the mural silently proclaims, the reality constructed here is entirely subjective, a winding Sisyphean maze of convoluted ideas. Freedman routinely tests the limits of subjectivity, just as he is testing the limits of the flimsy physical structures his sculptures rest on.

Installation detail of Matt Freedman: SLAP-STICK at Fjord Gallery, Philadelphia

To accompany this work, Freedman choreographed a “drawing performance,” where he wears a large pad of paper around his neck and continuously draws loose images, while a drummer, artist Tim Spelios, improvises beats. In his performance for SLAP-STICK, Freedman shared the origins of the “Acme Acme” mural he made in 2001 by telling a tale about the early life of Chuck Jones, famed animator and creator of Looney Tunes. In Freedman’s story, Jones took up with a Marxist theater troupe in his youth and traveled to the Southwest performing with them. Through a series of hilariously detailed anecdotes that included a chihuahua in a top hat riding on roller skates, among other absurdities, Jones was inspired to create the adventures of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner. This tale, Freedman informed the rapt, giggling audience, was complete bullshit. His version of the story was, however, picked up at the time as a news story by a network of right-wing blogs as evidence of Hollywood’s long-standing communist sympathies (in a moment of pre-Trump “alternative facts”).

This fabricated alternate reality makes for a fantastic story, a theme that continued in Freedman’s project Clumpism in 2009: a series of clumpy, fantastical sculptures that came with a manifesto positing a false history of a nonexistent 20-century art movement of the same name. It spawned an ovular, turquoise creature with the word “LOW” written on its back, and a red “carpet monster” with a long, pink tongue and bulging eyes sticking out from under its fringe; both can be found lurking in Slapstick.

Installation detail of Matt Freedman: SLAP-STICK at Fjord Gallery, Philadelphia

The play of fact and fiction also manifests in his sprawling Golem of Ridgewood project from 2012. In that work, Freedman purportedly “discovered” a film made by a congregant of a former synagogue in Ridgewood, Queens that is now Freedman’s home with sculptor Jude Tallichet. Presented as found footage, the film shows a young man covertly filming the congregation of the synagogue summoning a Golem, a mythical clay monster of Jewish folklore, to stave off the anti-Semites in their Queens neighborhood. The film also inspired a dizzying array of sculpted characters tenuously connected through a timeline which spans from the creation of man, to Leni Riefenstahl filming Tilly Fleischer at the 1936 Olympics, to Freedman’s discovery of the film and subsequent project. Many of those characters populate corners of the show at Fjord, lumpy and cartoonishly rendered, including the canary yellow, fantastically rendered Golem head, which looms some seven feet high, and stares out blankly with a slightly quizzical expression against the backdrop of a painted cactus.

Much of Freedman’s work from after 2012 deals in some form with his diagnosis of Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma, a rare but stubborn form of slow-growing and only partially treatable cancer with no known cause. He chronicled his excruciating treatment in a sketchbook that he then turned into an artist book titled Relatively Indolent But Relentless, a phrase his doctor had used to describe the cancer, but which Freedman felt was also an accurate description for himself. Shortly after completing treatments, he opened a solo show called The Devil Tricked Me at Studio 10 in Bushwick. The show dealt with notions of superstition, luck, and fate, pieced together in a deskilled, ad hoc manner that reflected his view of his circumstance with characteristic humor, through a lens of reimagined cultural mythologies. In SLAP-STICK, traces of that exhibition are found in the ludicrously slender, multicolored ladder reaching up into the ceiling, the pile of broken black umbrellas huddled in a corner, a dark cloud with a lightning bolt lingering in the rear of the gallery, and a mat covered in tails-up pennies in front of a gaudy, broken mirror.

Installation view of Matt Freedman: SLAP-STICK at Fjord Gallery, Philadelphia

Alongside invented fantasies of alternate cultural histories, there is a humble quality to Freedman’s work, which is perceptive and humorous, like his series of 3,000 risograph prints of 201 drawings that he made for a film project, spanning from images of characters from antiquity to quotidian objects like a clothespin or a can of soup. His work is keenly aware of the mixed-up, broken-down, rearranged ways we each view the world, and the truths and untruths we either question or swallow. In this world, Freedman is simultaneously both the trickster Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, blithely speeding away from untimely death and into the embrace of uncertainty.

Matt Freedman: SLAP-STICK continues at Fjord Gallery (1400 N. American St., Suite 105, Philadelphia) through February 25.

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