Viola Frey was born in Lodi, California in 1933 and died in Oakland in the summer of 2004. She received her B.F.A. from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and her M.F.A. from Tulane University, New Orleans. She twice received an Artist’s Fellowship Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Arts Commission of San Francisco conferred on her an Award of Honor for Sculpture.
She is known for her larger-than-life monumental ceramic figures of men in power suits and women either clothed, inspired by the fashions of the -50s, or dressed in pink in their birthday suits. She sculpted women holding the world or gazing at it, placing them in a position of power. She created men standing, walking, seated or fallen, wearing their nature and vulnerabilities in their suits and their visages. Frey also delighted in making smaller ceramic sculptures—sometimes hand-built, at other times slip-cast, as well as drawings.
In her smaller groupings, Frey’s love of the human figure is evident, men in blue power suits are juxtaposed with figurines, a cornucopia of cascading figures combines the most unlikely selection of objects, shapes and figurines for the artist, the abstractions of contemporary society, combined with images that have become visual “watchwords” of her vocabulary. In the artist’s hands the compilation comes alive as an animated, active, colorful tableau of life.
Like her smaller groupings, Frey’s plates bring together a wide variety of images that constitute Frey’s visual vocabulary: hands, eyes, windows, figures, grandmothers, figurines, spoon people, a swirling paint brush, an eccentric red Buddha, a Raggedy Ann doll, a horse winged or running, to name a few Frey icons. More heraldic tondos than plates, created of clay and Egyptian paste, with energy, drive and gusto, Donald Kuspit has said: “Each plate is like a different dream, but Frey’s dreams run in series… Each plate seems like a marvelously irregular yet uncannily perfect pearl. Indeed, if pearls are the oyster’s ecstatic response to an irritation, then Frey’s ecstatic plates are perfect pearls, for their intensity is a response to such irritations of life as death and memory.”
Above all, Frey is a figurative artist who delighted in painting or drawing figures, faces, profiles, eyes, hands, limbs. She applied her energetic, vigorous color and drawing line to the form of the human figure which she would hand build over a period of approximately one year. Her women represent everywoman, her men everyman. The monumentality of scale in the figures brings us back to the sensation of childhood when adults were towering pillars in the forest of humanity.