Deborah Benioff Friedman: something from nothing

by Maria Porges


...We are the song

death takes its own time singing. It calls us
as I call you "child"

to calm myself. It is every thing touched casually, lovers, the images

of saviors, books, the coin I carried in my pocket
till it shone, it is

all things lustered
by the steady thoughtlessness
of human use.—excerpted from Robert Hass, ‘Songs to Survive the Summer’ 

Deborah Benioff Friedman is drawn to dog-eared, broken things, used up and on the brink of being thrown away: the kind of materials or objects described in Hass’s poem as “lustered by the steady thoughtlessness of human use.” Over the last five years, she has come to love the meditative process of rescuing something consigned to landfill and transforming it into elegant and poetic forms, as she repurposes junk like discarded books or old cloth into works of art.

Friedman comes from a family of doctors and scientists. For her, there is a clear relationship between the meticulous unraveling and reassembly involved in making her pieces, and the veterinary surgeries she has performed for many years. Growing up, however, she experienced art and science together; her father, a noted ophthalmologist, was also a skilled sculptor, modeling lively figures. It was, she acknowledges, the struggle of his final years after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor that led her to begin making art of her own. One of their last interactions was in his home studio. She was trying to make a figure out of clay. He took it from her and, with a few small adjustments, brought it to life.

After his death, making things with her hands became a joyful thing for her—a way to feel peace. She started with folding paper in various ways, and soon began making and

altering books. Her practice outgrew the small home office she was using and the living room became her studio, as she experimented with new materials—leaves, cloth, pages of an old ledger. She tried staining and dyeing; boiled parts of old books to see what would happen, and collected broken, worn objects to incorporate into sculptures, creating something new out of rusted bottle caps or bits of reused cardboard.

One day, she was working on a series of small books, and she looked down at the teabag she’d fished out of a cup, sitting on the table’s edge. She suddenly realized that it presented a surprising number of possibilities. Such bags, she discovered, are surprisingly strong, and the residual staining left by the tea they contained can be exquisite. And what, she thought, could be more disposable or unconsidered-- more truly forgotten?

Over time, Friedman has explored the visual possibilities of teabags in depth. In works like Square Dance or Square Root, they have been treated like modular elements, sewn together with neat stitches into a loose, semi-open grid of overlapping and intersecting squares. She has discovered that there are many varieties of bags; in Fricative and Fritillary, triangles created by cutting larger bags in half diagonally are linked, with their own repurposed string, into airy forms that invoke the idea of flight, like Belgian artist Panamarenko’s mad, exquisite inventions.

In Ancient Egress, the overall composition is more organic in its structure. The doubled squares of opened bags seem to have accumulated one by one around a long, empty rectangle that echoes the shape of each opened bag. In Nexus, this sense of gradual growth, as if the work is a living thing, is even more pronounced. Like a crazy quilt, squares and rectangles have been sewn, overlapping like patches on worn clothes, into a dynamic shape that morphs like an inkblot as you study it: from a garment opened at its seams, to an animal skin.

Many of these works invite associations with quilting patterns of one kind or another- whether they invoke the harmony of geometric designs, or the practical, homey accumulation of scraps known as crazy quilts. Still, Friedman’s overarching aesthetic is more Eastern than Western, reminiscent in particular of the Japanese world view described by the term wabi-sabi: an acceptance of the transient and impermanent, as expressed in qualities like simplicity, asymmetry, economy, and modesty. Drawn to these qualities, Friedman is also fascinated by boro. This Japanese term is used to describe clothes and household items that have been repeatedly repaired and patched until they essentially are an accumulation of rags, held together with thousands of firm

and visible stitches. Boro represents sewing as a practice that goes far beyond mere attachment and repair, to a kind of restoration and elaboration. The running stitches that assemble the parts of Nexus into a translucent, bruised-looking skin suggest this kind of reverent yet practical intention. In Map, tiny rectilinear shreds of paper are quilted onto a stained brown paper matrix. The slender wandering arms of stitching may allude to roads or rivers, but they seem equally likely to be an elaboration of the darkened wrinkles created by whatever method Friedman used to dye the background paper brown. What they map, seemingly, is the intuitive meandering of making.

The bits of paper seen in this piece are the leftovers from the process used to create others. (Much like the Outsider artist James Castle, who never wasted a scrap of his found and homemade materials, Friedman constantly recycles every fragment.) In the series of works that includes Accent and Accolades, Friedman demonstrates that she is as interested in ‘subtraction’ as she is in the additive process described earlier. From the pages of an old ledger, she removed the rectangular cells of writing or numbers, names or dates, leaving behind a lacy skeleton of tiny windows. Gently disengaging and bending some of the slender peninsulas of paper that remained, she pasted others back, creating a staccato rhythm of presence and absence across each piece.

Friedman is always trying something new. Recently, she started soaking off the gauze that holds the binding of old books together, trying it out. But paper, her primary material, is also her favorite: translucent and light, delicate and easily torn or distorted-- yet strong enough to last for centuries. She loves the bits of writing that remain in pieces like No Such Summer or Cincinnati Cake: palimpsests that bear traces of the words that once determined their meaning, cut into fragments and stitched back together into a visual poetry of Friedman’s own devising. Its secret message, hidden in a code of stains and stitches, might be that art is long and life is short. There is beauty and meaning in all the soon-to-be lost and discarded things of this world, if we just pay attention to what we are touching, and take the time to really look.