Matt Freedman, “Hats and Broom on Bed with Drinking glass
Reflecting Full Moon” (2013), epoxy plastic, found objects, 36 x 72
x 18 in (all images courtesy Studio 10)
“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
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
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
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
Matt Freedman, “The Devil Tricked Me” (2013), installation
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
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.
Matt Freedman, “The Devil Tricked Me” (2013), installation view:
left, “Red Sky in Morning, Sailor’s Warning” (2013), paper and
plastic and paint and misc., 24 x 36 x 2 in; center, “Leaning
Ladder” (2013), wood and paint, 12 x 169 x 1 in; right, “Broken
Mirror Vanity” (2013), found object, 14 x 20 x 4 in (click to
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
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
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.