by Renny Pritikin
Peter Selz’s famous 1967 exhibition Funk included three women out of a circle of 25 Northern California artists, including many associated with UC Davis. A. Frick Vernon, whose first name was Ann, studied at Davis at that time and no doubt benefitted from the highly charged atmosphere of the liveliest art school in the country. But she also had to find her way in a department dominated by men with big personalities. While Vernon (1944-2020) shows the influence of William T. Wiley, Peter Saul and Roy De Forest, she took their training to a place they never could have: an exploration of the female experience.
Around two dozen unframed large mixed media works on paper, made between 1980 and 1990, comprise Narratives. Wiley’s familiar style, in which every inch of paper is covered with graphite drawings, acrylic paint and gouache in mostly restrained shades supported by black lines, is much in evidence. Throughout these works, a large blond woman dominates, while fainter imaginary landscapes and figures appear tucked into corners and other spaces around her. A lot of the fun comes in letting one’s eye wander around the drawings to discover these little gifts distributed throughout the fantasy terrain.
Vernon’s heroine carries a long staff that, piece-to-piece, transforms from a witch’s broom to a paintbrush to a farm implement, representing three aspects of the conventional roles available to women of Vernon’s generation: despised other, eccentric artist or working drone. This central character, who doesn’t physically resemble the artist, represents a figure who experiences what it is like being a woman in the world, isolated but gamely explorative. Her expression barely changes; it’s always sad and dreamy, her eyes suggesting that her thoughts lay elsewhere. While the repetition of her visage hinders our embrace of the overall body of work, the sheer vivacity of Vernon’s imagination wins us over.
As in Roy De Forest’s paintings, floppy-eared mongrel dogs and other animals pop up everywhere. Vernon takes that imagery into transcultural mythology, using a recurring owl as the blonde’s familiar, accompanying her on her journey through a strange land. She refers to the Greek goddess Athena who had a small owl companion representing wisdom and knowledge. Vernon also had an ongoing interest in Native American cultures of the Southwest: their adobe multi-level homes with ladder access often appear in the background, along with drawings of the Zuni and Hopi god Kokopelli. Vernon invokes him in his dual role of distributor of children to women and storyteller, bringing news to the people. Vernon’s ambition was to bring the news of her journey to the visitor, hence the exhibition’s title. She embraces a universal vision, epitomized by globes and globe-headed individuals penciled in among her interstitial drawings.
Selz’s intention to define a moment in American art fell short because he tried to include too many contradictory ideas within Funk. While mutually influential, the Hairy Who aesthetic imported from Chicago, old-fashioned Surrealism, San Francisco Beat ideas, and the anarchistic and political goings-on at Davis were not a group of unified practices or practitioners. Vernon’s work emerges from the heart of that nexus, standing out for its exuberant color, swooping energetic lines, shapes and visual imagination. She extended the Davis aesthetic by examining the obstacles facing women artists and the overlooked historic resources they could access.
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A. Frick Vernon: “Narratives” @ Anglim/Trimble Gallery through August 19, 2023.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal. His memoir, At Third and Mission: A Life Among Artists, will be published this fall.