Viola Frey

New York

at Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) & Nancy Hoffman

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Someday there will be a proper retrospective of the ceramic artist Viola Frey, who died in Oakland, Calif., in 2004, leaving behind not just the polychrome colossi for which she is best known, but also ceramic figural groupings (her “bricolage” pieces), 300 or so large wall-hung plates, and a multitude of paintings, drawings and prints. For now we must make do with “Bigger, Better, More: The Art of Viola Frey,” a traveling small-scale survey. The show is not nearly substantial enough to convey Frey’s vaunting ambition and sheer strangeness, but it thoughtfully samples with a single work or two nearly every period in her career, and every genre in which she worked.

Woeful, indeed, is the cramped installation at the Museum of Art and Design, which sometimes precludes the circumnavigation of works that beg for it. Fortunately for New Yorkers, Nancy Hoffman offered a supplement for a time; many drawings plus a few large bricolage pieces and late-career giants occupied the gallery’s big new space in Chelsea as if it had been built especially for them. Particularly wonderful there was the 6-foot-high female Seated Nude, Orange Hands, her hands aflame with color—perhaps a metaphor for the heat of craft.

The catalogue presents new information, including details about Frey’s childhood on a farm in Lodi, Calif., where her father’s junk-hoarding fostered her taste for castoff trinkets and flea markets. Included in the show are some of Frey’s best-loved finds: a naked plastic hinged male doll and some mass-market ceramics that she replicated often in her work. One of them, a Buddha, is the central character in a plate on view, a raucous composition swirling with a dolphin-riding mermaid, a Madonna and child, and a group of men, along with brightly colored blobs and splotches (Red Buddha, 1994).

The uneasy relationship between people and their possessions, which often threaten to overwhelm their owners through size or quantity, or both, was a constant theme for Frey; typically, as in World Culture Bricolage (1999), the tchotchkes proliferate in the same space as the “human” characters, and are often the same scale, so that it is difficult to determine which is which. Partly this alludes to the condition of Frey’s own life: she resided in a notorious state of clutter. Yet one cannot help but reflect on the Americanness of it all—of a culture of consumption in which goods are overabundant and circulate at a distance from their origins and makers. Frey always maintained that her work was personal, but she was notoriously close about autobiographical specifics. Identifying figures in her work is a challenge, since their large-eyed, impassive faces, colored like all her surfaces in fauvist patches (brushed on after a first firing then fired again), are as generalized as those of ancient kouroi.

Present in the exhibition are her first over-life-size characters from the ’70s, twinned grandmothers and twinned self-portraits (among the few works with secure IDs); an affinity with the funky realism of Bay Area cohorts like Robert Arneson is evident. In the ’80s, Frey became more archetypal in her figures—women in flowery print dresses (or, later, nude) and men in suits. The bodies, upward of 10 feet tall, built and fired in segments and fortified with poured concrete interiors, offered abundant stretches of surface for painting. Early on, as in Fire Suit (1983), Frey blocked out colorful highlights and shadows, tying them to the representation. As time passed, however, the colored marks took on a vivid life of their own, and although the poses would remain rather stiff, she braved greater risks with her figures. In Man Balancing Urn (2004), the figure—one in a long line of passive-aggressive gentlemen—pushes a vase with his foot, as if tipping it over rather than balancing it. In Weeping Woman (1990-91) the risk is of a different order; bringing one hand to her face, the nude seated figure, dappled with patches of blue shading, wipes away a tear. It is an order of expressivity unusual for Frey, who briefly lets down her guard to allow a glimpse of inner life. (Co-organized by the Gardiner Museum, Toronto, and the Racine Art Museum, Wisconsin, the show travels to the Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, Aug. 13-Dec. 5.)    

Photos: (left) Viola Frey: Above, left to right, Fire Suit, 1983; Man and Meissen Figurine, 1982; Man Observing Series II, 1984; and Weeping Woman, 1990-91. Left to right, Untitled Plate, 1991; The Eater II, 1980; and Junkman Bricoleur, 1997. Both at the Museum of Arts and Design.