Artist Tom Friedman goes back to where it all began: high school

You see a lot of sitcoms when people go back to their high school reunion and they always regress," says artist Tom Friedman. "They start acting like they did in high school — it's like Pavlov's dog."

Friedman will test that theory this weekend, when he returns to his alma mater to be honored as John Burroughs School's 2011 outstanding alumnus. Friedman, who graduated in 1983, is in good company; other creative progeny of Burroughs include John Hartford, Jane Smiley and Kiku Obata (and William Burroughs, who failed to graduate). To mark the occasion of the Burroughs award, the school's Bonsack Gallery is exhibiting a selection of Friedman's work.

Best known for his use of common materials to create works of bewildering procedural rigor and, often, hyper-realistic verisimilitude, Friedman is perhaps most astounding for his almost gymnastic diversity — from a starburst crafted from wooden toothpicks to a perfect cosmos rendered in laundry detergent.

"I was kind of someone who liked to try everything, and when I saw interesting things, I would try them," he recalls. "Like, I remember when The Six Million Dollar Man came out, I tried to make a bionic arm out of soda cans — trying to figure out how to make the fingers and using string so you could pull on them and make them move."

He also collected feathers, which he'd fashion into wings. "I'd take the cardboard from my dad's new shirts and poke holes and glue the feathers in. Cardinals, blue jays — I had a shoebox that was filled with them."

At Burroughs Friedman tended to keep to himself; it's probably no coincidence that the two sports he played — golf and wrestling — were solo pursuits. Music was — and still remains — a source of inspiration. Friedman played drums and noodled around on guitar, though never with any serious intent. Instead, he says, the art form shows up in the rhythms and textures of his work.

"Music is temporal, so you go from the beginning to the end," he explains. "But I still think about the art experience: Like, someone comes to look at my work. What is the first thing they see, the next, how do they transition from one piece to the next? And then stepping back and seeing the totality of it. I do think about it in a temporal way, as well."

One of the works chosen for the Bonsack Gallery exhibit is Vanishing Point, a photogravure composed of 25 plates Friedman made while a visiting artist at Washington University's Island Press. Local artist Cameron Fuller, a grad student at the time, remembers working on the piece with Friedman. "He'd take his plate and sit in a far corner of the studio and draw alone," Fuller recalls. "Then he'd come back to us and share what he'd done. He was a quiet but tireless worker."

That reserved approach is consistent with the shy young artist at Burroughs, who favored retreating to the safety of the art building rather than mixing with peers. In Vanishing Point, black-and-white depictions of a sneaker, a belt, an apple core, a dollar bill, a wallet, pants, a sock and so on, each appear in receding miniature against a white background, until the litany of castoffs disappears in the perspectival distance. The image suggests the artist walking away from the viewer, divesting himself as he withdraws.

Local gallery owner and fellow alum William Shearburn ('79), who co-curated the Bonsack exhibition, observes of Vanishing Point, "It actually reminds me of how a teenager's bedroom looks, and how they just throw their things around." As in most of his work, Friedman freights metaphysical content with a punch line, often creating a high art of contradictions: What first appears dismissible turns out to be the product of labor and skill, and the most dryly serious conceit can be cut by dime-store humor.

Other works in the Bonsack show include There, a mixed-media sculpture in which a pristine white cube appears to have fallen into a pool of paint, resulting in a multicolored "splat"; and an untitled relief print in which the spectral form of a figure appears to be dissolving into the dotted atmosphere that surrounds it.

Says Friedman: "I find that in my work, it's really about the physical and the mental, and learning from that. I think one thing that was good was that, because I was so unconscious [when I was young], I really explored the physical world, whether it was through movement or material — using my hands."

Two important influences at Burroughs were Friedman's sculpture instructor, Bob Walker, who encouraged his inclination toward humor in his work; and a painting teacher, Joanna Collins.

"I remember an experience with Joanna," Friedman says. "She was drawing with pastels, but her eyes were half-open — or half-closed — and she was recalling a location in her back yard, while she was drawing. It was really amazing: the drawing and remembering. It was a really profound experience."

And one that led Friedman to his first conscious epiphany about art.

"There was something about the mark-making and the way my hand would hold the charcoal and move across the paper," he elaborates. "I was much more sensitive to that. And to what the marks were representing.

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