Exhibition | Body Matters / Martha Friedman

Martha Friedman, Floating Thought 16, from the series A Natural Thickening of Thought, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco. © Martha FriedmanBody Matters presents two new series of sculptures by the artist Martha Friedman, whose multimedia practice incorporates choreography, printmaking, drawing, poured and cast rubber, mold-blown glass, plaster, wax, and concrete into works that encompass her interdisciplinary interests.

In Mummy Wheat and A Natural Thickening of Thought, Friedman draws inspiration from sources as diverse as ancient Egyptian mummification, Greco-Roman portrait busts, nineteenth-century public monuments, and early twentieth-century drawings of the central nervous  system. She discussed her inspirations and interests with Mitra Abbaspour, Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, who organized the exhibition.

MA: Rubber is the primary medium in many of your bodies of work; what originally drew you to rubber, and what keeps you coming back to it?

MF: It began as a practical interest, and then it evolved into a more abstract metaphorical interest. When I was young, I tried to make a mold of a dead, twisted tree branch using just plaster. It ended up as a rigid ten-part mold, and I needed to figure out the mechanics of how all those parts could separate and then fit back together. Then, at art school, I learned that there was rubber that you could introduce into this mold-making system so that you didn’t need to account for so many twists and turns. Sometimes, as I make art, the tool I’m using starts to become a primary object of interest. That’s what happened to me with rubber. Eventually, I came to experience rubber as a metaphor for the body. Rubber sits between liquid and solid, it feels fleshy, there’s a whimsy to it, it responds to pressure. It has a lot of possibilities as an analogue to the body.

Martha Friedman, Bust 5, 2021 from the series Mummy Wheat. Courtesy of the artist and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco. © Martha Friedman. Photos by Kristine EudeyMA: In each of these series you’re bringing yourself into direct dialogue with historical relationships to the human body. How have the rituals of ancient Egyptian mummification informed your series Mummy Wheat?

MF: There’s something viscerally interesting to me about freezing a body in time and stopping it from disintegrating (not unlike many of my ongoing preoccupations as a sculptor). In mummification, preserving the body requires pulling out all the liquid by removing the brains and viscera to desiccate the corpse. Liquidity has to be harnessed and removed in order for this stasis to happen so that this previously wet body can then transport the soul to the afterlife. While studying mummies, I became very interested in the bandaging, which is what holds the body together, protecting it from outside forces while also absorbing atmospheric interference and moisture. As a result, I began casting thin, translucent rubber ribbons that stand in for the linen strips in which mummies were wrapped. These wrappings were highly valued and incredibly important to the Egyptians, and for a long time archaeologists and plunderers were indifferent to that. For centuries tomb raiders quickly cut off and discarded the wrappings in search of the amulets that were buried with the bodies. The wrapping as a discarded skin became another interest of mine. I’m fascinated by things that are discarded. In the studio, I often mine the remnants and discards from my previous work and upcycle them into new work. I think discards can tell us a lot about our priorities and assumptions.

MA: In A Natural Thickening of Thought, you’re creating compositions in conversation with the drawings of the fin de siècle physician and medical researcher Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934). How would you describe your relationship to Cajal’s drawings?

MF: I was really attracted to these drawings of Cajal’s because he was trying to study and represent the tiny structures in our brains that in large part make us who we are. An attempt to visualize and pinpoint where a person’s self lies, despite its existential futility, is a rewarding search that leads to impactful scientific discoveries. Cajal’s drawings in particular have a strong subjective presence and singular aesthetic style. He would look into the microscope at a certain type of sensory cell, often one that was broken or damaged. He would look at these damaged cells for an entire morning. Then he would take lunch and come back and try to draw them from memory. After that, he would go back and look at them through the microscope and correct his renderings. He had set up a system to mine his own neuronal pathways to make the drawings.

Martha Friedman, Bust 2, 2021 from the series Mummy Wheat. Courtesy of the artist and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco. © Martha Friedman. Photos by Kristine EudeyThe other reason he appealed to me is that my father is a molecular geneticist, and my mother is an infectious disease physician. When I was young, I would often go to my dad’s lab and look into microscopes. I spent time trying to figure out how exactly my father was thinking about the structures of things that exist on this unbelievably small scale, and how these encapsulated molecular processes lead to larger-scale reactions in your body. Making these abstract leaps as a kid was something I was constantly grappling with.

MA: How are you thinking about the role of light in A Natural Thickening of Thought?

MF: Illuminating the layers of poured rubber in these pictures accentuates rubber’s ability to exist in both liquid and solid states. There’s an inherent sense of eeriness to rubber in the way that it feels and looks, and illuminating it from behind amplifies this strangeness. These works are inspired by Cajal’s nineteenth-century drawings of neuron cells, and having the paintings sit on top of a light source alludes to a slide on the stage of a microscope. It’s meant to invoke the idea of learning or searching or trying to understand what something looks like—so that the works become representative of the process of visualization and materialization.

MA: In these works, you’re painting with rubber for the first time. Did this feel like a novel engagement with the material, and what did you learn from it?

Martha Friedman, Floating Thought 19, 2022 from the series A Natural Thickening of Thought. Courtesy of the artist and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco. © Martha FriedmanMF: The way I produce these rubber drawings is on a sheet of metal that has a short protruding rim. I mix small amounts of rubber pigment and pour lines onto the metal sheet. Once the first lines set, I can then pour more lines. Eventually, once I’m happy with all my lines, I flood the canvas with a translucent rubber that forms the ground, or backing, of the painting. It’s almost as if I were painting in three-dimensional space and then at the end of the process placing my canvas against my paint strokes.

MA: In what ways are you thinking about scale and interaction with your viewers’ bodies in creating these paintings?

MF: I think in all my work I’m playing with scale to try and engage a sensory system and bodily sensibility that is either in tandem with or supersedes an intellectual reading of the work. The rubber neurons are drawings of science in a way. They’re a subjective representation of science, but I blew them up to a larger scale and rendered them in this material that feels very tactile and animated. You can almost sense that something’s alive in rubber, if you don’t think about it too much.

MA: What are the origins of the titles for these two series?

Floating Thought 13, 2022 from the series A Natural Thickening of Thought. Courtesy of the artist and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco. © Martha FriedmanMF: Mummy Wheat, the title for the series of busts, refers to the wheat fields that British planters hoped to grow from seeds found in the tombs of ancient Egyptians. Corpses were buried with different things to take with them into the afterlife, and in some there would be urns or pots full of wheat seeds. In the nineteenth century botanists feverishly tried to regenerate the wheat that was found in the tombs by germinating the desiccated seeds in hopes of sowing fields with it. And it never really took. It seems the seeds were shot due to the temperature variability in the tombs. I think of my own busts as an attempt at regerminating a textile practice into the present using my own wrappings based on ancient techniques. And whether or not it takes, is successful, or lives on, is almost irrelevant. It’s really just the trying. The trying to replant the seed or to see if this little desiccated thing has any life left inside. And then also it’s the idea of removing liquid to make things last. As humans, we won’t last because we’re full of liquid, but the liquid is the stuff that provides a life force.

The series of illuminated rubber paintings are titled A Natural Thickening of Thought. Cajal was instrumental in discovering that as you age some of your neurons, and the networks around them, get thickened or gunked up (see Floating Thought 12). Rubber is a liquid thing that thickens and congeals, and my pictorial renderings of neurons index my own thinking as I create the composition, like an image of my thoughts frozen inside rubber. Ambered.

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.