A lot on his mind – Matt Freedman at Fjord

Matt Freedman's eclectic and slightly obsessive ensembles explore the power of chance in our lives. Chip takes in his solo show at Fjord and the artist's live performance at the Icebox. – Artblog Editor

Matt Freedman, Tails Up Pennies from "The Devil Tricked Me."
Matt Freedman, Tails Up Pennies from “The Devil Tricked Me.”

If there is one thing that is true of Matt Freedman, it’s that he’s got an awful lot on his mind. If there is a second truth, it’s that he genuinely enjoys sharing these musings with anyone willing to entertain him. At Fjord, Freedman’s retrospective inventory of disparate concepts, stories, cartoon-like painted panoramas, and sculptures is matched in scope only by his propensity to expound on seemingly every detail. Freedman’s exhibit is entitled “SLAP-STICK” after that most physical and absurd form of comedy in which falling down spectacularly is the punchline, and the highbrow is defenestrated in favor of the bumbling and oblivious. Freedman, however, is anything but oblivious, as demonstrated by the expansive knowledge featured in both his visual artwork and his performative monologues.

Display and performance

Visiting only the exhibit of artwork on display at Fjord is to miss out on the array of anecdotes and background information that the artist weaves together behind the scenes. Although a video monitor in the gallery plays a loop of Freedman narrating and scrawling on a pad of paper that hangs from his neck, witnessing his stream-of-consciousness narration in person is an altogether different experience. On February 9, Freedman took to the Crane Arts Icebox along with fellow artist and percussionist Tim Spelios in order to bring action and accompaniment to his creations.

Matt Freedman and Tim Spelios performing at the Icebox.
Matt Freedman and Tim Spelios performing at the Icebox.

Over the course of his more than hour-long exposition, Freedman touches on everything from the history of theatrical art and panoramic paintings, to the tension between Jewish and German residents of Queens (where his studio is located in a former synagogue) during the lead up to World War II. Freedman trudges his way through observations about Diogenes of Sinope, the ancient Greek cynic, the novel War and Peace, mock Super Bowl games he has reenacted on a small scale, Jorge Luis Borges, and the arcane influences of luck–both good and bad.

Installation view of Matt Freedman's "SLAP-STICK" including "Golem Helmet," desert panorama, ladder, dark cloud, and lightning bolt.
Installation view of Matt Freedman’s “SLAP-STICK” including “Golem Helmet,” desert panorama, ladder, dark cloud, and lightning bolt.

Dealing in metaphors

During the performance, Freedman–longtime fine arts faculty at the University of Pennsylvania–reveals that he was diagnosed with a rare, slowly-metastasizing form of cancer in 2012, but instead of internalizing or catastrophizing his experience, he examines it with the same calm inquisitiveness that he applies across the board. Freedman notes that the scans of his lungs reminded him of star charts, and that despite the gravity of the situation, the image wouldn’t leave him. When he eventually decided to share his impression with the doctor, the physician replied that he didn’t ‘deal in metaphors,’ to which Freedman conceded he was glad. It is probably for the best, after all, that doctors focus their attention on healing and not symbolism.

Fjord’s gallery is brimming with Freedman’s assorted colorful papier mâché and found object sculptures that exist in constant dialogue with his ideas, stories, and sketches; they are the physical manifestations of his ceaseless cerebral exercises. To be sure, much of what we find here seems at odds with the adjacent works. Among the sculptures penned in by a short wooden fence on the floor is a replica of Freedman’s very own synagogue-turned-studio just behind a likeness of Leni Riefenstahl, the infamous Nazi propagandist, with camera in hand, aimed and ready to shoot. A gold-painted helmet from Freedman’s short film The Golem of Ridgewood rests atop a tall wooden stand, presenting its imposing height without the assistance of a body.

Matt Freedman, "Golem of Ridgewood" figures.
Matt Freedman, “Golem of Ridgewood” figures.

Almost directly in the center of the room, a bookcase stuffed with paper is almost easy to overlook in favor of the more obvious, boldly colored artwork on display. Its shelves, however, contain a compendium of drawings and writing assembled during Freedman’s isolated, month-long stay in the hospital while he underwent radiation treatments. Freedman epitomizes a multidisciplinary outlook towards most everything. He is a true student of life, and if anything, his suffering and mortality have only emboldened his thirst for discovery.

Humor and loss

In light of everything, humor is still integral to Freedman’s work, even when it verges on dry and sometimes morbid. It should be no surprise that Freedman has worked as a cartoonist. In the panorama, which features a road, some mesas and a desert, we can see hints of the perpetual chase put on by the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote in his pursuit of the Roadrunner–an apt allegory for the parts of life that seem to slip through our grasp whenever we reach for them.

This play of fate and fortune finds Freedman placing hundreds of pennies tails-up on the floor, acquiring and piling up a collection of broken, open umbrellas inside, placing a broken mirror nearby, and setting up a ladder that visitors almost inevitably walk underneath. These pranks and others highlight the absurdity of superstitious beliefs, but also the very real influence of sheer chance on our everyday activities. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, Freedmen seems to say, life might have other plans for you. “SLAP-STICK” will be at Fjord through February 25.