PU Art Museum Premieres “Body Matters / Martha Friedman”
“FLOATING THOUGHT 13”: This work from the series “A Natural Thickening of Thought” is part of “Body Matters / Martha Friedman,” on view May 20 to July 10 at the Princeton University Art Museum’s Art@Bainbridge on Nassau Street.
The Princeton University Art Museum presents new mixed-media works by the artist Martha Friedman in “Body Matters / Martha Friedman,” on view May 20 to July 10 at Art@Bainbridge. Friedman, a senior lecturer in Princeton’s program in visual arts, integrates elements of choreography, printmaking, drawing, poured and cast rubber, mold-blown glass, plaster, wax and concrete in her complex multimedia practice.
Highlighting Friedman’s interest in historical practices for preserving, representing and studying the body, the exhibition brings together two new series of sculptures — Mummy Wheat (2021) and A Natural Thickening of Thought (2022) — that draw on influences as diverse as ancient Egyptian mummification, Greco-Roman portrait busts and the early 20th-century drawings of neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Shown together for the first time, these works highlight Friedman’s interest in bodies as site and subject for scientific exploration as well as for conceptualizing a spiritual realm.
“‘Body Matters / Martha Friedman’ continues Princeton University Art Museum’s commitment to activating Art@Bainbridge with powerful works created by today’s most exciting practitioners,” said James Steward, Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, director. “Through her provocative and compelling use of widely divergent materials, Friedman’s sculptures and paintings challenge the boundaries of these disciplines even as they invite us to reconsider our ideas about the human body and brain.”
In the exhibit, rubber — the artist’s primary medium — serves as a metaphor for the body. A liquid that becomes a malleable solid, both stretchy and resistant, its texture mimics flesh. Friedman collaborated with dancer and choreographer Silas Riener, a member of the Princeton class of 2006, in casting his head and shoulders to create the mold-blown sculptures for the exhibition. This process pushed the limits of Riener’s physical training as a dancer; he held his posture for 90 minutes as Friedman covered his eyes, ears, nose, head, and torso in rubber, withstanding heat and breathing through a small slit at his mouth. Friedman suspends his animation in sculpture, freezing his body in time.
The result of their collaboration is Mummy Wheat, a series of sculptures that combine elements of Greco-Roman portrait busts in their detailed record of individual physical attributes and ancient Egyptian mummies in the carefully patterned weave of thin strips of rubber that echo the linen wrapping around corpses. Their golden surfaces also recall the gold masks that were applied to the faces of many elite coffins. In ancient Egypt, gold was associated with the sun’s radiance and the skin of the gods; in Mummy Wheat the shimmering golden surfaces similarly lend an air of both luxury and the supernatural. However, one of the greatest luxury materials in ancient Egyptian tombs was linen. Friedman studied Egyptian techniques of wrapping bodies in linen to develop the precise geometric patterns in which she wove thin, translucent ribbons of rubber around the heads of these casts of Riener, an homage to the care given to this ritualistic practice in ancient Egypt. Inspiration for the title of the series comes from the ancient Egyptian practice of burying corpses with wheat seeds to carry into the afterlife.
“Body Matters / Martha Friedman” also includes A Natural Thickening of Thought, a series of rubber paintings inspired by Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s late 19th- and early 20th-century medical drawings. Cajal’s groundbreaking studies of the cellular structure of the central nervous system earned the neuroscientist a share of the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1906. Friedman’s works use Cajal’s drawings as a springboard, transforming them into her own compositions, expressive gestures, and forms in hand-colored rubber.
“Body Matters / Martha Friedman” is curated by Mitra M. Abbaspour, Haskell curator of modern and contemporary art. All works on view in the exhibition are courtesy of the artist and Jessica Silverman, San Francisco.
In addition to the exhibition, the Princeton University Art Museum will present programming for students and the public, including an introduction to the exhibition with Friedman on May 19 at 5 p.m. at Art@Bainbridge.
Art@Bainbridge is located in downtown Princeton at 158 Nassau Street. Hours are Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit artmuseum.princeton.edu.