Paint, Memory - Catalogue essay by Lilly Wei for In Passing, Michael Steinberg Fine Art, 2007
The theme of disappearance and loss, time and memory is present in one way or another in all of Barbara Friedman’s paintings but became less an inquiry into the inevitabilities of the human condition inflected through a specific temperament and more inconsolable after 2001. Friedman, who lived—and still does—very near the site of the World Trade Center was overwhelmed at first and responded to the attack tentatively, obliquely. Lightening her palette, using colors that were pale, pastel, less bold than in previous ventures, gradually softening, then blurring the contours of her images, tempering reality, Friedman depicted scenes on the verge of dissolution, seen as if through a scrim, filtered to suggest indistinct, incomplete, subjective memory.
The paintings that followed further explored the contiguity of unremarkable daily life with its dark, disruptive obverse. These do not form a chronological, autobiographical narrative—although the autobiographical is encoded into the work—but are images, stripped down, scavenged from the peripheries of streaming memory, revenants persuaded into uneasy, tremulous existence. Eventually emptied of people, depicted objects became Friedman’s surrogate personae. The haunting Vagabonde (2003) features a white hammock emerging from a lushly, beautifully painted impressionistic ground of many-colored greys streaked with bright, shocking pinks. The hammock, psychologically and emotionally resonant, seems to swing forward out of a dream state. Christmas in July (2004) is similar in theme. In it, an empty Adirondack chair dabbed with arbitrary patches of more strident, darker pinks is surrounded by a complex white as if in snow, confusing and conflating season and sensation. Another is of a blurred yellow school bus, rushing through the time and space of what might be a wintry day to and from the sweet hereafter, its invisible passengers captive. There are cars and cable chairs and a cropped Ferris wheel, things in motion or about motion, perceived from odd, slightly disturbing angles. There are also traffic lights, blinking red and green, swinging solitary against a brushed, palpated sky or strung out in sequence like Chinese lanterns, flashing incandescently orange in a void.
In more recent work, the foreground images are clearer and in her most recent production, Friedman has re-introduced figures in ones, twos and small groups, as if reassured herself, she is reassuring her viewers. But many compositions are still devoid of people, such as The Garden of the Finzi-Contini (2006) in which a large expanse of green tennis court takes up most of the painting and is edged by dark trees and an inflamed, portentous sky. It has the secretive air of a crime scene and invites speculation: Where are the players? What happened to them? Will they return? (Those who have read Giorgio Bassani’s novel or saw the Vittorio de Sica film to which the painting refers know the answers.)
These lovely, poetic, formally inventive pictures with their Richteresque blurs seem to be on fast forward—or backward—a two-way exposition of time and memory cinematically formatted, accompanied by pop references, Proust updated. Friedman is fixated on time and its deformations, its distortions, jostled as if recorded by a hand-held camera. Memory also is her subject, but it is a fictive, dissembled, re-constructed memory. Wistful, vulnerable, open-ended, interrogative, self-conscious, these paintings are Friedman’s salvaging operation, her longing to excerpt remnants of life from the inexorable passage of time, her willful act of resistance to our common mortality—and her romance with it.
Lilly Wei is a New York-based independent curator, essayist and critic who writes regularly for Art in America and is a contributing editor atARTnews and Art Asia Pacific.