Charley Friedman: The New Deal
by Robert Mahoney
January 18, 2017
For the past few seasons, artists, aware that parlor game intellectualism of contemporary art is not working anymore, have increasingly enlisted animals to help them communicate in a more instinctual way. Charley Friedman’s squirrel project is one of the most engaging, ongoing examples of this genre. I first saw Friedman’s squirrels (they come in both bronze and wax) make a tentative incursion in a group show at the Kimmel Harding Arts Center, Nebraska City, fifteen months ago. Then I virtually followed the invasion east, as last summer he permanently installed a long procession of bronze squirrels in migration at the outdoor sculpture garden at Art Omi up on the Hudson River north of New York City. But with The New Deal, now showing at the Museum of Nebraska Art, Kearney, NE, Friedman’s squirrels have reached critical mass, and made a full on invasive incursion of a gallery space. Here, 200 wax squirrels swarm down from the ceiling, crawl down the wall, jump onto the floor, then converge on a bright doorway, framed by dressing room mirror lights like you see in the movies. The squirrels are spaced in various ways, with tails either flat, upright, curled or trailing, some crouch, some scurry, others, closer to the light, have got up on their hind legs, one suspects they are communicating with each other, a concern that activates one’s connect-the-dots (pareidolic) impulse.
At last, the ringleader up front, strangely, gives in to his curiosity at what the lighted door is, to approach its mysterious glaring presence, momentarily, though, he has got up on his hind legs and paused. His pause then courses backwards through the mob to make you see it all a second time, but with greater appreciation of the squirrel’s other great skill (in addition to scampering), “freezing,” as not only is there no way a human could ever win a staring contest with a black-eyed squirrel, but the “mannequin challenge” (which has been sweeping the country)? no way, squirrels win every time. One feels the freeze with a chill but, then, just as quickly, the natural proprioceptive push of human perception reanimates them and you start seeing them as on the move again. So, in the abstract, you have an installation that first presents itself as animated, then shifts gears, and a few times, in a staggered pattern, then pulls up in a question mark, then freezes, then the whole thing freezes, and then is released again, for the second time, unleashing a full on scamper. And I think in this description I have included feelings of fear, alarm, wonder, curiosity, rapture, fear again, panic, then resolution, like I said, instinctual.
But, then, as the squirrels persist, one begins to muse. Why squirrels? And why, in this way, on the walls? on the floors? why not just a nice “animal sculpture” on a pedestal for animal lover to peruse? A few thoughts--and here is where instinct tosses a curveball. It would seem that human beings who lose contact with the current ways of communication with other human beings will often retreat to taking up talking to the animals. The marginalized, the newcomers, the has-beens, St. Francis, Rocky, anyone on the outs in any situation, might, at one time or another, find oneself liking one’s dog or cat more than other human beings. When I relocated to Lincoln from New York a few years back, I spent a lot of time in my early months talking to the squirrels. And what I found was that, while certainly the squirrel has to be commended for surviving in city life, they are not the brightest bulb in the animal kingdom. Their hardwired warning system, for example, is totally out of whack. How many times did I actually say out loud to a squirrel busily digging up a nut, then, hearing my approach, freeze, “continue with your work please, I am absolutely no danger to you.” Maybe he heard me, but, nope, his hardwiring insisted that, when I got too close, he ran off. I was a human, humans, they know, kill, so, when one gets close, they run (I felt unjustly charged). Sometimes I would see hundreds of squirrel footprints in the snow, providing clear evidence that their touted ability to hide and remember where they hide nuts is totally bogus, these squirrels were lost and had lost their nuts. They also don’t seem to be able to relate those big noisy boxes on wheels (aka cars) that move up and down the wider sidewalks (aka streets) because while they won’t let me within five feet of them, they have no trouble trying to cross a street in traffic, leading to the undoubted fact, proven by piles of crime photos of squished squirrels at their headquarters, that they as a species likely suffer more roadkill deaths than any other. And, then, don’t get me started with winter, wait a tick, they build their nests in the highest branches of the trees, where it is the coldest, and their house is going to sway in the high winds up there all winter long? doesn’t make any sense. I mean, their whole lifestyle is all messed up, they gotta get a clue (Thoreau I am not). But it is most of all their out of whack hardwired warning system, and their tendency to scamper away in panic, or then “freeze”--as if we are going to think they are statues, not squirrels, right--that most directly bears upon this art installation enlisting them totemically to comment on us and our behavior in these times.
At present, human response to trouble seems set at exactly two speeds, panic, and circle the wagons. This was borne out in our recent presidential election, which easily qualifies for inclusion in Charles Mackay’s catalog of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1848), where, even worse, most of the panic and wagon circling was incited by a new sort of communication in politics, tweeting, top of the head off the cuff comments suddenly read as ex cathedra judgements made after reflective consideration, the pundits reading the tea leaves, which is crazy, yep, we were pretty much behaving like squirrels all year long, on both sides.
Squirrels do not swarm. If you happen upon a hunt and realize that five are around you, that is a lot of squirrel, and can freak you out. But 200? doesn’t happen. What this means is that Friedman has also, at this scale, staged a deregulation of nature, something has gone awry. What is that something? Ancient shepherds in the Greek world explained the sudden, unexplainable panic’d stampede of sheep, goats, cattle or horses, as “Pan’s panic.” They believed that a shiver passed through nature, heard as a kind of loud cracking noise, not exactly thunder, but like the cracking of wood, which they read as Pan’s evil cackling laugh, and this frisson is what animals picked up on and scattered. As late as the third century Romans would run wild in the streets in panic, hearing--horrible omen!--loud thunder and lightning crackle out of a clear blue sky (these “supernatural voices” in the sky also explain why augurs read the future in the flight of birds). Shepherds also believed that they could hear this frisson if suddenly woken from a noonday nap, making noon Pan’s most riotous hour. What they were picking up on is that animals, in fact, are “the canary in the coalmine,” they can pick up danger, change of weather, storms, etc., faster than us, because they have advanced senses (for example, humans have five million cells in our noses, dogs 200 million, they smell more). But sometimes, their panic was simply unexplainable (which you know if you have ever witnessed a cat’s sudden crazed panic) and that frightened everybody. These ideas have survived in storytelling in vampire tales, where it is always the cat who hisses first at the vampire (wonderful cat scene in Let the Right One In (2008)), and in satanic tales, where animals in the zoo are likely to riot when brought face to face with the devil (Damien and the baboons in The Omen (1976)). Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds(1963), cited by Friedman in gallery comments, was a classic example of the horror of nature run amuck, spawning hundreds of copycat versions, bees, rats, snakes, ants, spiders, and giant forms of all, and on and on. The theory here is also derived from superstitious peasant thinking that nature loves equilibrium, homeostasis, the status quo, and if anything new comes into an ecology to rile things up that sets off a panic (specifically, in The Birds, Melanie Daniel’s unwelcome lust is the cause, evoked by the loved birds, of unnatural flocking). Pan’s panic results in a break in the natural order, and of the norms of communication in that order. This too is captured by the scale of Friedman’s installation: there is no reason why squirrels would invade a former bank building now an art museum if not to try to take over, or run amok in it. The squirrel in the house is a primal terror (“Squirrel!” is the cry from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation(1989)), this is a tableaux of nature gone awry.
The New Deal is crowned by the destination that all the squirrels are headed toward, a glowing door. This is a first for Friedman and his squirrels, the first time, I believe, that they have focused en masse on something, and go for it. Like the pre-humans in Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey (1968) going ape discovering the black monolith from space in their midst, like Carol Ann reaching out her hand to the static-y television set (or in sequels, to a blazing bright closet door) in Poltergeist (1982), the squirrels seem curiously drawn to, some enthralled by, a strange portal. It is a door, but made of the lights you see around dressing room boudoirs. Most humorously, the doorknob is also a brightly lit bulb (this is the first instance of contemporary art working with the trope of the evil or troubling doorknob, one of the essential markers of fear or danger in haunted house movies, that I have witnessed--and btw, special bulbs, they don’t emit heat, I checked, though in doing so I played off another trope of the booby-trapped doorknob, see Home Alone). The squirrels are drawn to it as children to E.T., should we pass through? should we hop on board (the fact that this is the Canada side of the skylight gallery posits pondering for Nevertrump NotMyPresident too-good-for-the-US exiles)? But, then, too, the lights of the door are VERY BRIGHT, I mean, blindingly bright, (since I have trouble with bright lights, I had to look away, look back again, then look away several times, increasing the nystagmus). This brightness means that while, generally, the trajectory of the piece is to look through the bias (in a dressmaker’s sense) of the spaces between swarming squirrels to the door, the door also reverses on the eye, to come out at you. I thought of truck headlights on brights on the highway, this raised the thought of another animal metaphor, “deer in the headlights,” evoking the moment when, overcome with fear, drained of will, humans freeze. The light also tends to collect on the eye, touching off a rash of retinal blue dots (the squirrels then embodiments of that momentary blindness—again, one thinks of Hitchcock’s Rear Window), momentarily making it seem like the light comes from behind the door through the door, making of it not only a portal, but an intrusive one, like the laser ray of Gort’s grimly-opening cycloptic eye in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1953). Generally, I read the door through the lens of the dressing room framework, bespeaking the desire of most Americans, bereft of a sense of solid community, to seek redress from too-lonely lives by becoming famous, and famous at any cost (even if only by selfies). But in the glare of the doorway one might be forgiven for catching hallucinatory glimpses of simulacra of famous men and women, selfies, terrorist mug shots, the shooter of the week, your kids. It is like an icon, but an instantly effacing one, there, but not there. Yes, the limelight might glow for you, you might become “real”, you might even be able to run for president, but there is danger there, and like that lead squirrel, you should pause. The door most of all communicates the primarily intercessionary posture of Friedman’s installation, pushed by fear to seek out cult, it petitions power, it seeks answers, it is searching for meaning, it offers connection to some ulterior reality, overcoming our fearful approach, but, then, it offers no clear answer. It is US, wanting an answer at this Delphic Oracle in the middle of the prairies (no ether earth vents under MONA, though the marble hallways are swell), but no answer comes.
Out in the hallway part of this show Friedman has created Dangerous Possibilities (2016), a sign language of apparent complexity, with strange humanlike felt Hands of Glory of several skin tones mounted on four shelves making sense of their cryptic language with a grabby insistence, but then you realize that it is only ABC all along, the 26 figures of the alphabet defamiliarized in elaborate but cryptic hand gestures. The kerplunk of the involved effort undertaken to communicate “more of the same” suggests that the idea that there are secret codes in things might be passe’, as even our commonest forms of address by this point have become secret codes. But it did strike me, as the brightness of the door began to recede, that the hands might have been semaphoring through the wall to communicate a code as if by an electric frisson(possibly emitted by a curatorial sign, “Please do not walk within the objects of the installation”) to the tail movements in the massing squirrels on the interior gallery wall, the raised and curled tails taking on a pitchforks and torches edge, to suggest, the final apocalyptic message that, uh oh, the squirrels are sick of us (the only other work of punitive squirrel art I know of is Tim Burton’s disposal by squirrel of Verucha Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)), they are about to jump ship, they are leaving us, to go seek out a better life for themselves on another planet. Again from The Birds, the guy at the end of the bar, “It’s the end of the world!”