The works comprising “Charley Friedman: Moist Things,” occupying the main gallery at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, exude an emotion too often overlooked in contemporary art: They’re fun.
Small in number but monumental in scope, “Moist Things” surveys more than two decades of work from this Lincoln, Neb., artist, whose dominant sculptures are massive and playful and kinetic. The exhibition moves and drips and hums with life, inspiring immediate awe and dumfounded attention. Bright and surreal, it mesmerizes schoolchildren and art scholars alike.
At the center of this exhibit are four installations created out of mad genius and dogged persistence. “Carpet World,” the first such piece visitors will encounter, is a scaled-to-size globe made from fabric, a painstaking latch hook project that took the artist two years to complete. It’s vividly blue—oceans cover most of the planet—with countries and islands color-coded in shades of pale orange, mauve, taupe and lime green, like randomly cut snacks in a bag of veggie chips. You’re probably not supposed to touch it, but it’s so tactile I couldn’t resist. It’s a giant cat’s toy, and it turns us all into inquisitive felines. Its ambition staggers.
The same can be said for the piece that gives the show its title, “I Like Moist Things.” Call it aquatic text art: Friedman refashioned 16 sponges into letters spelling out the titular phrase, a silly and suggestive declarative sentence. The sponge art hangs in the air, suspended by wires and absorbing and releasing streams of water, which collect in a kiddie pool below. The water circulates back to the streams above the sponges, generating an endless loop—a fountain that might fit in the lobby of an eccentric hotel, a la the Grand Budapest.
The liveliest of all is “Science Project,” completed with assistance from local engineering students. This summery kinetic sculpture consists of 80 motor-propelled beach balls spinning like atoms around a steel rod. A beach party distilled into a carousel of symbols, it’s as endlessly watchable as anything I’ve ever seen in a museum. Just as painstaking, and arguably lovelier, is “Garden,” a site-specific arrangement of hollowed-out eggs covered in resin and glued to a gallery wall in formations that resemble verdant plants, with the occasional yolk signifying a budding flower.
Stunning from afar, Friedman’s work tends to grow in esteem the closer you analyze it. “Garden,” in particular, demands a deep dive. Viewed up close, those sinuous plant tendrils reveal themselves indeed to be eggs, with individual puncture marks serving as reminders of their previous functional life. Part of Friedman’s genius may be the way he hides nothing about his transformed materials yet manages to transport us nonetheless. Beyond that, it’s hard to discern an overarching “point” to these large-scale whimsies. Rather, as in the work of the Dada artists, they expose the futility of searching for one. Their blazing originality is pointed enough.
By contrast, Miami artist David Rohn’s “In Service/Out of Service,” in the next gallery, confronts issues of classism and inequality head-on. It largely consists of oval-shaped portraits of the artist himself dressed as stylized versions of homeless and working-class Americans, men and women alike. For the homeless portraits, he dons secondhand garb including Army fatigues, worn coats, shower caps and makeshift wigs, a convincing hodgepodge of apparel these poorest of people may have cobbled together.
On the gallery floor, Rohn created a tent city filled with the meager detritus of a life on society’s fringes—ugly blankets, a bucket used for god knows what, a Slim Jim label, an empty Pringles canister. In a careful ironic touch, Rohn incorporated promotional giveaways from the Design District, such as tarps and umbrellas, which comment on the contrast between this ostensibly upscale tourist attraction and the urban poor that surround it.
One room over, Rohn inhabits working-class archetypes in the same portrait style, clearly identifying himself as a nurse, a mechanic, a housekeeper, a cable guy and a server. They hang over a more domestic, if still budget-conscious, setting: Instead of tents and tarps, there’s a hearth decorated with thrift-store tchotchkes, and a used three-piece used sofa set which the artist painted over with dinosaurs, a poignant reflection of our industrious method of turning others’ trash into new treasures.
The two rooms are more similar than different. Rohn’s expression never changes regardless of his subject’s socioeconomic status, and this one-gaze-fits-all approach draws connections between these tenuous strata. In an increasingly automated economy, more and more skilled workers are becoming expendable, and the gap between the lower classes is shrinking. The people in Rohn’s portraits might represent the so-called “forgotten man” (and woman) whose votes decided the last presidential election. They’re invisible to most of us reading this, but Rohn takes time to look at them. Any candidate would be wise to be follow his lead.
These exhibitions, along with “Lisa Rockford: Dear 33020,” run through Aug. 20 at Art and Culture Center, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood. Admission costs $4-$7. Call 954/921-3274 or visit artandculturecenter.org.