The New Yorker, January 21, 2023
Princeton University Art Museum Premieres Body Matters / Martha Friedman May 20
Sculptures whose influences range from ancient Egypt to early twentieth-century neuroscience
Princeton, NJ — The Princeton University Art Museum presents new mixed-media works by the artist Martha Friedman in Body Matters / Martha Friedman, on view May 20 to July 10 at Art@Bainbridge. Friedman, a senior lecturer in Princeton’s program in visual arts, integrates elements of choreography, printmaking, drawing, poured and cast rubber, mold-blown glass, plaster, wax, and concrete in her complex multimedia practice.
Highlighting Friedman’s interest in historical practices for preserving, representing, and studying the body, the exhibition brings together two new series of sculptures—Mummy Wheat (2021) and A Natural Thickening of Thought (2022)—that draw on influences as diverse as ancient Egyptian mummification, Greco-Roman portrait busts, and the early twentieth-century drawings of neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Shown together for the first time, these works highlight Friedman's interest in bodies as site and subject for scientific exploration as well as for conceptualizing a spiritual realm.
“Body Matters / Martha Friedman continues the Art Museum’s commitment to activating Art@Bainbridge with powerful works created by today’s most exciting practitioners,” said James Steward, Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director. “Through her provocative and compelling use of widely divergent materials, Friedman’s sculptures and paintings challenge the boundaries of these disciplines even as they invite us to reconsider our ideas about the human body and brain.”
In Body Matters / Martha Friedman, rubber—the artist’s primary medium—serves as a metaphor for the body. A liquid that becomes a malleable solid, both stretchy and resistant, its texture mimics flesh. Friedman collaborated with dancer and choreographer Silas Riener, a member of the Princeton class of 2006, in casting his head and shoulders to create the mold-blown sculptures for the exhibition. This process pushed the limits of Riener’s physical training as a dancer; he held his posture for ninety minutes as Friedman covered his eyes, ears, nose, head, and torso in rubber, withstanding heat and breathing through a small slit at his mouth. Friedman suspends his animation in sculpture, freezing his body in time.
The result of their collaboration is Mummy Wheat, a series of sculptures that combine elements of Greco-Roman portrait busts in their detailed record of individual physical attributes and ancient Egyptian mummies in the carefully patterned weave of thin strips of rubber that echo the linen wrapping around corpses. Their golden surfaces also recall the gold masks that were applied to the faces of many elite coffins. In ancient Egypt, gold was associated with the sun’s radiance and the skin of the gods; in Mummy Wheat the shimmering golden surfaces similarly lend an air of both luxury and the supernatural. However, one of the greatest luxury materials in ancient Egyptian tombs was linen. Friedman studied Egyptian techniques of wrapping bodies in linen to develop the precise geometric patterns in which she wove thin, translucent ribbons of rubber around the heads of these casts of Riener, an homage to the care given to this ritualistic practice in ancient Egypt. Inspiration for the title of the series comes from the ancient Egyptian practice of burying corpses with wheat seeds to carry into the afterlife.
Body Matters / Martha Friedman also includes A Natural Thickening of Thought, a series of rubber paintings inspired by Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century medical drawings. Cajal’s groundbreaking studies of the cellular structure of the central nervous system earned the neuroscientist a share of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1906. Friedman’s works take Cajal’s drawings as a jumping-off point, transforming them into her own compositions, expressive gestures, and forms in hand-colored rubber.
Friedman’s sculptures do not replicate Cajal’s compositions; rather, she is drawn to the visual language he developed to document the neurological and sensory structures he observed through the microscope. Responding to the way Cajal’s drawings made visible a body’s inner systems of vision, smell, healing, and aging, Friedman again turned to rubber, hand mixing multiple colors of liquid rubber with which to draw, paint, pour, and sculpt. She bent skeins into arcs before stacking the rubber layers into the bed of her mold. Once the lines dried, she arranged them to her liking, flooding the canvas with translucent rubber to form the backing and stretching the work against a lightbox to emulate microscope slides.
Body Matters is curated by Mitra M. Abbaspour, Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. All works on view in the exhibition are courtesy of the artist and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco.
In addition to the exhibition, the Princeton University Art Museum will present programming for students and the public, including an introduction to the exhibition with Friedman beginning at 5 p.m. on Thursday, May 19, 2022, at Art@Bainbridge.
Art@Bainbridge is made possible through the generous support of the Virginia and Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Program Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art; the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund for American Art; Joshua R. Slocum, Class of 1998, and Sara Slocum; and Barbara and Gerald Essig. Additional support is provided by Stacey Roth Goergen, Class of 1990, and Robert B. Goergen; and the Morley and Jean Melden Education Fund for Prints and Drawings.
About the Princeton University Art Museum
With a collecting history that extends back to 1755, the Princeton University Art Museum is one of the leading university art museums in the country, with collections that have grown to include more than 113,000 works of art ranging from ancient to contemporary art and spanning the globe. Committed to advancing Princeton’s teaching and research missions, the Art Museum also serves as a gateway to the University for visitors from around the world.
The main Museum building is currently closed for the construction of a bold and welcoming new building, designed by Sir David Adjaye and slated to open in late 2024.
Art@Bainbridge is located in downtown Princeton at 158 Nassau Street. Art@Bainbridge hours are Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Art on Hulfish, the Museum’s photo-focused gallery located at 11 Hulfish Street in Palmer Square, also in downtown Princeton, is open daily.
Admission to both galleries is free.
Please visit the Museum’s website for digital access to the collections, a diverse portfolio of virtual programs, and updates on opportunities to visit in person. The Museum Store in Palmer Square, located at 56 Nassau Street in downtown Princeton, is open daily, or shop online at princetonmuseumstore.org.
More information: artmuseum.princeton.edu
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