by Mark Van Proyen
Does anyone remember the time when there was a hard distinction between fine art and craft? And does anyone remember just how righteously adamant the enforcers of that distinction were? Clearly, time has almost washed those memories away, but 40 years ago they could still be felt, even as the challenge to that distinction was also being registered on multiple grounds. H.C. Westerman and Peter Voulkos are usually the artists credited with initially abolishing it. But apart from their accomplishments, the only other major artist from that generation who breached the art vs. craft divide was Viola Frey, whose multifaceted 35-year career is examined in a tightly packed retrospective consisting of about 150 objects at the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art. The exhibition was organized by Amy Owen, the di Rosa’s chief curator, and is accompanied by a catalog with an essay by Jodi Throckmorton, a curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, who most recently occupied a similar position at the San Jose Museum of Art.
Frey’s work came to international attention during the early 1980s, when the art world was fixated on various forms of expressive figuration. In that climate, her brightly glazed, heroically scaled ceramic figures made perfect, eccentric sense, infused as they were with a palsied body language and fraught psychology emanating from beneath lustrous, seductive surfaces. Whether standing upright or reclining or positioned as individuals or in multiple groups, they come across as obstreperous nephilim cast out from an earlier time when the collision between rural and suburban lifestyles was reshaping the California experience.
They also anticipated shifts in social priorities that refocused attention away from isolated individual subjectivity and toward the stereotypes bred by identification with group demographics. But on this score, it is crucial to note Frey’s work registered both sides of those tensions, not just one or the other. Old Hag (1985), for example, shows the artist portrayed as both as an individual "of a certain age" and as an ancient cultural stereotype. We are reminded that Frey spent her earliest years in Lodi, a ranching and farming community in California’s Central Valley. The biographical information about her early life is scant, but it does reveal that her paternal grandmother was the emotional center of an extended family (and a family farming business), and her presence in the artist’s life is echoed in the unaffected forthrightness of many of her figures, such as Untitled example from the Grandmother series from 1978. Despite the figure’s menacing facial expression and oversized, palsied hands, we still see the fortitude and independence of a woman who learned hard lessons during the depression and the World War II years.
The first work you see upon entering the gallery, Seated Figure with Vase (1998), shows another aspect of Frey’s work, which was her debt, albeit an ambivalent one, to the tradition of classical sculpture. It is a larger-than-life, seated female nude holding an amphora in a manner derived from Roman and Hellenistic art. But there is something slightly off about it. The figure conveys a visible discomfort, betraying the ideal of beauty as defined by graceful self-possession. Another work that imaginatively plays on classical sources is Decline and Fall of Western Civilization (1992), a horizontally arranged tableaux of ten more or less vertical figures (or fragments of figures) that seems as if it were once a frieze affixed to the pediment of a fanciful Greco-Roman temple. It is the largest work in the exhibition, and one of the two most impressive. It shows what seems to be a stereotypical American family arranged as a pantheon of mock-classical deities, the tallest being a father awkwardly filling out a tight blue suit, along with a mother clad in a 1950s homemaker’s frock. Flanking them are two sets of less complete figures, some nude, others revealed only as isolated faces (or in one instance, as a large penis). Thus, we see the “Fall” to which the work’s title alludes, where, despite the attempt of the couple to uphold a condition of tradition-bound stability, we see riots of perversity represented by the flanking personages.
The exhibition provides an extensive array of Frey’s earlier, pre-figurative works from the 1970s, and this makes for a special treat for those interested in how artistic beginnings foreshadow their subsequent evolution. In Frey’s case, it is a complicated story. One of the earliest works is an untitled piece from 1965 subtitled Wall Hanging Female Figure, a 15-inch long female that is morphologically related to the Cycladic goddess figurines made 3,000 years ago. The minimally glazed surfacing of this work sports a subtle patina that makes it look like an ancient cut stone artifact, conveying the general mystery of being related to some ancient cult practice understandable to only the most adventurous of archeological imaginations.
Throughout the 1960s, Frey fell under the influence of artists associated with the Bay Area Funk movement (especially Robert Arneson, who was one of her fellow students at CCAC in the 1950s). Throughout the later 1960s and into the 1970s, this influence propelled her work toward whimsical, child-like Surrealism, evidenced by several pieces that make absurd plays on the idea of trophies, slyly suggesting that art collecting and trophy hunting had become the same thing. The exhibition contains a very generous assortment of works from this period, most of which are displayed on table-top pedestals in a way that reminds us of how, during her early years, she often made modestly scaled work to sell in flea markets and garage sales. A good example is a work titled Non-Endangered Beaver from 1973, showing a large and defiant beaver standing atop a pile of wood set upon a crude wagon, looking like it could be a maquette for the sort of work Jeff Koons would show two decades later. One of the things that this group of work alerts us to is the amount of trial-and-error experimentation that went into Frey’s application of differing glaze formulae, conveying just how difficult it was to achieve the stunningly masterful glazes of her post-1978 figures.
There are two displays of large ceramic plates hung on opposing walls. One group of about 16 hails from the early 1970s; others were made after 1978. All range in size from 24 to 36 inches in diameter. The two groups are quite different in that the earlier ones reveal only minimal glazing to emphasize the earthen texture of the fired clay, whereas the latter feature more aggressive, thicker and more brightly colored glazes of the type seen in the late figures. The earlier plates have subtle textural elements that might them seem related to similar works made by Peter Voulkos from around the same time, but the later plates have much more pronounced textures and sumptuous surfaces, which make them read as pictorial reliefs in executed in tondo format.
Although Frey was most widely known for her ceramic sculpture, she also was quite an accomplished painter, having studied with Richard Diebenkorn during the late 1950s. This is revealed in a generous selection of paintings on stretched canvas and framed works on paper. Among the earliest of these is a work titled Father’s Farm from 1975, showing a stepladder set up in a bucolic orchard, painted in both oil and acrylic, but looking as if it were a large watercolor. There are also several watercolors, including Untitled (Manikin Couple, 1980), which treats two figures set in an outdoor landscape as if they were large plastic dolls, lending food for thought about the way Frey formulated her ceramic figurative sculptures out of
individually fired components. Other paintings on paper, such as Untitled (Blue Nude Standing on Crouching Figure, 1978), use a thicker acrylic paint to channel the spirit of Picasso’s post-cubist “neo-classical” period by way of a deft, curvilinear articulation of a female figure, triumphantly standing atop a prostrate male figure. It reminds us of the ways that the Spaniard’s work also bridged the gap between art and craft while immersing itself in a world of fraught sexual politics.
In many of Frey’s works, we see signs of tension between male and female figures, as if she were compulsively revisiting scenes of early childhood trauma. In the large, three-panel oil painting Studio View: Man in Doorway (1983), a man in a blue suit brashly exits a studio scene, toppling scores of ceramic figurines on the way out. The same bull-in-china-shop exit is restaged in Studio View: One Man Splitting from the same year, only this time the composition is relatively spare, sporting only a minimal amount of color.
It’s worth noting that Frey was only four years younger than Jay DeFeo and four years older than Joan Brown, those being the two female artists most widely known in and beyond the Bay Area during the halcyon decade of the 1960s. Both started their careers while they were in their 20s, and both died relatively young, as did Frey. Frey was somewhat older when she began her career, and the trajectory of its rise was much slower, meaning that she missed key opportunities, including possible participation in the legendary Funk exhibition held at the University Art Museum in Berkeley in 1967 and the LA County Art Museum’s American Sculpture of the 1960s from the same year. But rise it did, steadily and on Frey’s own terms. Even though it might have seemed that the art world had passed her by, it turned out that it circled back to discover her work in our own time where interest in the relation of art and gender politics is vivid and resurgent. Like Brown and DeFeo, Frey was a fiercely individualistic artist, with little interest in being identified as a member of any pre-packaged movement, including the nascent Feminist art movements of the 1970s. Nonetheless, her multi-thematic work is a record of a life lived, both in the studio and in the broader world of social circumstances over which neither she (or anyone else) has much control, apart from the way she chose to experience, understand and respond to it.
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Viola Frey: “Center Stage” @ di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art to December 29, 2019.
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.