SEWARD -- Three video screens in the Marxhausen Gallery show Charley Friedman struggling to hold a smile as time goes by.
As it moves closer to 60 minutes, Friedman's smile becomes more of a grimace, the pain of his self-inflicted endurance challenge written across his face.
The videos are each titled “One Hour Smile” and are the starting point of “Tolerance,” Friedman’s exhibition at the Concordia University gallery that runs through Feb. 20.
“The first one I did, I was 27; the second one, 37; the last one 47. I did it a week ago,” Friedman said a few days ago.
“I don’t look forward to doing it. It’s always tough. It always hurts. But I decided to do it again because I like the idea of having a piece that will change because you add this thing called time. The first piece was a smile, characteristics we’re able to read; it also becomes a piece that’s tied to experience; the more you do, the more juice that gets put into it.”
That juice is three fold.
First, the three videos show the world wearing on Friedman as he ages, making it a series about time. Friedman plans to do a "One Hour Smile" every 10 years, a process that heightens that aspect of the work decade by decade.
Second, the videos illustrate one of the key aspects of Friedman’s art. It is often overtly autobiographical, but also universal, allowing it to connect with viewers on multiple levels.
Third, there’s something painfully funny about watching Friedman struggle to keep smiling, an injection of the humor that pervades his work.
Friedman’s Concordia exhibition, made up of pieces created over 20 years, is a disparate body of work.
There are the three videos, a pair of photographs, a book titled “Gross Anatomy/Anatomia Completa,” filled with color prints of Miro-like figures he created years ago, giant “Q-tips” leaning against a wall, a sculpture made of sponges dripping with water called “I Like Moist Things,” a wooden sculpture and two gouache depictions of a “Coat Rack” topped with the Obama re-election campaign insignia.
All that work -- which intentionally appears like it could have been done by a handful of artists -- originates in the same place: Friedman’s sketchbooks.
“I put down absolutely everything in that sketchbook,” he said. “ I like using the sketchbook because I have no disregard for any idea that I have. I just allow the muse to run absolutely haywire. There’s no opinion, good, bad, I don’t care. I draw it.”
The sketchbooks, which he has carried since 1998, are a storehouse for Friedman’s ideas into which he regularly goes spelunking, bringing back potential pieces weeks, months or years after they were sketched out.
That’s the case with “Family Portrait,” a photograph of Friedman, his wife Nancy Friedemann and their daughter, Nina, taken a couple of years ago shortly after the family had moved to Friedman’s hometown from New York.
The sketch, which features a very pregnant Nancy before Nina's birth, was done more than a decade ago. When the family had moved to Lincoln, it was the right time to turn it into a photograph, Friedman said, while acknowledging that he drew on Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” for some of the imagery.
“My sketchbooks become a way for me to think in a nonlinear way,” Friedman said. “That’s the key that I make. It allows me to think in a nonlinear way and make connections between different points in time.
“So the twirly piece I have up now in Miami was a piece, that sketch appeared in my notebook in in 1988 when I was at the Bemis Center. I thought, 'I want to make this. I don’t know exactly how it’s going to look or what it needs to look like. But I know the attitude.’ When I came to Lincoln, I knew it was time to make it.”
The “twirly piece” Friedman refers to is a large sculpture made of beach balls on long wires that spins in a circle. It was constructed in Friedman’s west Lincoln studio with help from mechanical engineers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
It’s now on view at Gallery Diet in Miami, which represents Friedman, who is maintaining his national career while living in Lincoln.
”She (the Gallery Diet director) was supportive of us moving to Lincoln,” he said. “ She also wanted to see what I was going to do. I waited a couple years until I had a body of work to say, ‘look, here it is, this is what Lincoln has to offer me and what I can then offer you.’ Lincoln allows me to think big. Lincoln allows me to have time. Lincoln allows me to take risks.”
Those risks can be seen in about half of “Tolerance.” The photographs, sculpture and gouaches all having been made since 2013.
So can the humor, political commentary and autobiography that’s at the center of Friedman’s continually entertaining, thought-provoking work.