“This cartoon-y format creates a bias toward humor and lightheartedness, but I don’t feel like that at all,” Matt Freedman writes in his artist’s book, Relatively Indolent but Relentless (2013), directly beneath a drawing of a pair of scissors snipping off the tip of his tongue.
Freedman makes art that is immediate and mystifying — a baldly populist, Looney Tune aesthetic arising from the fearsome complexities of history. His 2012 installation at Valentine, The Golem of Ridgewood, with its 8,000-year timeline, faux-archival film footage and array of Plasticine figures from Diogenes to a Nuba warrior, was a mind-snapping tour-de-force encompassing Messianic longings, bawdy Mozart lyrics (via Goethe), 16th-century pogroms, 19th-century carnival games, and the failure of the Enlightenment.
Not long after The Golem of Ridgewood closed, Freedman learned that he was critically ill. As he writes in the press release for Relatively Indolent but Relentless:
This summer I was surprised to learn that my years of earaches were not caused by nighttime teeth grinding, but by cancer. Specifically I had Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma, a rare and slow growing cancer that had begun in a tiny salivary gland under my tongue and had spread over time, no one knows how much time, but years certainly, to nodes in my neck and into my lungs. After a lot of running around we determined that the best immediate treatment was to attack the tumors in my tongue and neck with proton radiation and chemotherapy.
The treatment, which took place at Massachusetts General Hospital, began in October. Over the course of seven weeks, Freedman underwent thirty-five days of radiation and weekly doses of chemotherapy.
In early October, just before I moved up to Boston a friend gave me a blank notebook and said I should fill it up. I counted the pages and saw that if I began a daily journal on October 3 and wrote or drew four pages a day, I would finish on December 1 having completed a 240 page book.
That blank notebook became Relatively Indolent but Relentless, which is the cornerstone of Freedman’s solo show at Studio 10, The Devil Tricked Me. There are two bookshelves holding advance copies — printed in stunning facsimile by Seven Stories Press, to be released in April 2014 — near the entrance of the gallery, but the show does not cover the same ground.
The book, which is excerpted in the current issue of the arts journal Esopus, is a harrowing account of Freedman’s treatment in words, pictures, charts and graphs, a detailed immersion into the medieval hell of cutting-edge medicine.
By the time he reached the midpoint of the procedures, the skin on his neck had dried and sloughed off, feeling as if “a razor has been dragged” across it, and the pain inside his mouth became intolerable. It was all but impossible to eat solid food, but if he didn’t keep his weight up he would have been faced with the insertion of a feeding tube, a prospect he desperately wanted to avoid.
Freedman may have felt neither lightheartedness nor humor, but as an artist, it seems, he just can’t help himself, filling each page with drawings and jokes that reveal the horror of his situation as well as the gimlet-eyed self-awareness that affords him the ability to cope.
The focus of the exhibition, however, is not the specifics of Freedman’s illness but the universal phenomenon of bad luck and the tiny, irrational pacts we make with fate each day to deflect it.
This is the first art show I’ve ever seen with a disclaimer. High on the wall above the gallery desk, Freedman has written in block letters:
Let me explain myself. I don’t like to be obscure. I like to make things and I wish always to work to the best of my abilities to make myself understood. So what do I do when I am forced by circumstances to appear before my friends and family when I am not at my best? That is exactly the situation here. I suspect that my intellectual and physical faculties are compromised, temporarily, I hope, by illness and medication. That being the case, I choose to work without any skill at all.
Freedman may not be at his best, but the effect on his art is debatable. While the works in The Devil Tricked Me, unlike the labor-intensive sculptures and paintings in The Golem of Ridgewood, rely primarily on found objects, most of them present beguiling visualizations of common superstitions (don’t walk under a ladder; never open an umbrella indoors; step on a crack, break your mother’s back, etc.) that telescope the triggers and consequences of bad luck.
Take the pile of umbrellas heaped against the gallery windows; they are not only open but also wrecked, with skeletal aluminum ribs poking out everywhere. They appear to have been blown in through the windows after high winds and rain ripped them from their luckless owners’ hands. The random deaths from this week’s tornado in Oklahoma come to mind.
Given the centrality of the history of Judaism in The Golem of Ridgewood, it wasn’t surprising to notice that the three hats stacked on the bed in “Hats and Broom on Bed with Drinking Glass Reflecting Full Moon” were the wide-brimmed, flat-topped, black felt variety worn by Hasidic men. The narrow cot covered by a red-spattered blanket inevitably suggests pogroms and the Holocaust, while the short, rustic broom lying between the black hats and a black cat remains enigmatic.
Associations and paradoxes abound, infusing these embodiments of bad luck with magical thinking, resignation and all the ironies and conflicted emotions in between.
There are two ladders — one short and one tall. Both reach all the way to the ceiling like Jacob’s ladder climbing to paradise, but look too fragile to hold even the weight of a child.
Hundreds of pennies (all tails, you lose) are scattered on the floor. Could they be a low-end interpretation of the gospel of Mark’s admonition, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Or are they an equally discounted version of the shower of gold that rained upon Danaë from the heavens, impregnating her with Perseus, son of Zeus and slayer of Medusa, the icon of paralyzing fear and sudden death?
“Dead Bird” lies on the floor as if heedlessly kicked to the wall. Rendered in black line, the bird is an image from Relatively Indolent but Relentless, which Freedman photocopied, enlarged and pasted on a nine-inch-long piece of jig-sawed wood, embellished with real feathers.
The feathers, sticking out here and there like the broken umbrella ribs by the windows, lend it a forsaken air; dropped from the sky, it has vanished from the realm of the living as if it had never existed. It’s a blunt, elegiac and deeply affecting piece.
In the journal entry for November 4, 2012, about halfway through the treatment, the artist writes, “This is the first day that makes it clear I may not be able to force my way through everything”:
Everything leading up to this was a joke. All the bravado was just that. I knew it, but I couldn’t feel it. Now I got it all, the pain, the fogginess, the anger, the endless stretch of time before it ends. And I have none of the resources left to combat all that. Except one thing: my stubbornness. How long will that last?
Where Freedman saw only stubbornness, others will witness honesty, courage and Promethean fire. His exhibition may be half danse macabre and half exorcism, but he’s beating the devil one artwork at a time.
Matt Freedman: The Devil Tricked Me continues at Studio 10 (56 Bogart Avenue, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through June 16.