Plotting Jonah Freeman on the Matthew Barney — Gabriel Orozco Axis

OK, do I shoot down that comparison in the first sentence, or later on? Starting with his sculpture and environmental pieces, and later with his video and photography, I’ve been a fan of Jonah Freeman’s work for more than six years. But with The Franklin Abraham, his current exhibition at Andrew Kreps Gallery, I think he has reached a synthesis, a new mode that has implications beyond just his own work.
I put Gabriel Orozco and Matthew Barney on a rather arbitrary spectrum (Orozco because I just wrote about his documentary and videos a few posts ago, Barney because he’s the apotheosis of something, at least). Actually, the comparison’s not that far-fetched; all three artists, including Freeman, move easily between mediums, although at least Barney and Orozco consider themselves sculptors first. The two old mens’ videos have something else in common; they can be controversially tedious to watch, especially if you’re not in the mood.

Orozco uses the camera as a proxy for the artist’s eye, a means for transmitting his own way of seeing the world we live in. You’ll look at a bubble, a billiard ball, a trickle of water along the curb, differently after Orozco shows them to you. Likewise, his sculptures often result from the barest intervention on found materials, as if the test was to see how slight a gesture–or a glance–it takes to make the ordinary into art.
Barney, by contrast, has a world fully realized in his head. For him, The Cremaster Cycle films are imperfect-at-best simulacra, approximations that get closer to his ideal as his production values improve, but ultimately only representations. The sculpture-props that appear in the films, and the set-like installations are likewise artifices, and consciously so.
More than just a film, video, or installation, The Franklin Abraham is a remarkable synthesis of these two extremes. Freeman has imagined an elaborate narrative set in a fantastic world, but he creates it from the easily overlooked sections of our quotidian existence. The Franklin Abraham is a two mile-long, centuries-old building with more than 2 million inhabitants. It’s a Manhattan reimagined as downtown Minneapolis in perpetual winter, where people seem to lost even the slightest instinct to go outside.
Hypnotic, anesthetizing tracking shots float along empty corridors (variously hotel banquet halls, cubicle farms, and hospital-like linoleum fields) and drift in and out of tense and tranquilized scenes of typical Franklin Abraham ‘life.’ It’s ostensibly another world, but it feels–and looks–uneasily like our own.
The breakthrough, though, comes from the sculptures that are being shown with the video at Kreps. They’re not actual props, but imagined ones, forms and objects that could easily inhabit Freeman’s world. Yet their commercial-grade construction materials and processes–mirrored Perspex, extruded aluminum beams–have more in common with successes like Orozco’s altered elevator car and Citroen DS than with misses like Barney’s Vaseline-meets-concrete…whatevers.
For all this comparison, I’m pretty sure Freeman doesn’t have either artist in mind when he works, with one important exception. Barney’s big-budget (for the art world) Cremaster films have upped the production value ante for other artists who work in video, yet the art market and collector base is still too immature to support many six-figure productions by young artists. One solution, of course, is the near-no-budget approach of Orozco’s films, which boil down to A Man and A Camera, and that’s it.
Barney-scale budgets, though, came from Barney’s pioneering practice of funding his films through the sale of related sculptures, props, and objects is being adopted by a new generation of artists, including Freeman. But to succeed, this model requires a highly relevant interrelation of object and projected image, something Barney managed only in the earlier Cremasters, and which Freeman achieves in spades with The Franklin Abraham. My guess is, it’ll be rare for other young artists to pull off such a successful integration across mediums. You kicked some serious butt, Jonah.