Viola Frey

The Pursuit Of Sincerity:  Viola Frey’s Figurative Sculpture by Donald Kuspit

Viola Frey’s art belongs to the tradition of Expressionism, which, whatever else it is about, and however varied its aesthetic manifestations, is concerned with sincerity, not only the sincere self-expression of the artist, but the sincere representation of other people, whether intimates of the artist or relative strangers, for example, anonymous models.  I admire Frey’s art because it holds out for the possibility of sincerity in an insincere world—an insincere art world as well as contemporary society.  The conventional dictionary meaning of sincerity is “not falsified or perverted in any way,” “containing no element of dissimulation or deception; not feigned or pretended” (New Oxford English Dictionary).  Insincerity in art, carried to a nihilistic extreme under the guise of what I want to call kitschified irony, is to my mind best exemplified by Damian Hirst’s remark that “his art is all about the relationship between art and the everyday.”  One wonders if the 2001 exhibition of the “mess”—as the janitor who cleaned it up called it—from his studio in a prominent London gallery is kitsch or art:  kitsch when it was an everyday mess that became “original” “six-figures” art, as the gallery director called it, when it was institutionalized as such by being displayed in her gallery, and before that because it came from a place called a studio because someone who called himself an artist inhabited it.  The transfer of junk from the studio to the gallery does not make the junk art, and is not a significantly transformative let alone creative act. 

Hirst is a leftover Duchampian, and a not very convincing one, for he does not enlist so-called found objects in “the service of the mind,” let alone “assist” them into becoming art, as Duchamp intended, in a process that he called “aesthetic osmosis,” but rather mindlessly self-congratulatory, as the fact that he found it “hysterically funny” that his “work” was treated as garbage, as though pre-destined to be garbage—a “throwaway” that was “thrown away,” confirming that it had no lasting value, whether in the everyday world or the world of art.  One cannot help recalling Hermann Broch’s essay on “Evil in the Value System of Art,” where he writes:  “Whoever produces kitsch…is not to be evaluated by aesthetic measures but is ethically depraved; he is a criminal who wills radical evil.”  To be depraved—and to be aesthetically depraved, as kitsch is, as well as ethically depraved, as it is to pass off kitsch as art—is to be insincere, all the more so because it falsifies the everyday as well as art, emptying both of meaning. 

I take Hirst’s so-called conceptual art—anti-aesthetic pretend art (ordinary things pretentiously proclaimed to be extraordinary art)—as an extreme example of art that is indifferent to the human:  indifference to the human, as Theodor Adorno said—for him it was symbolized by Auschwitz, a dehumanized and depersonalized mass society mass producing death, a place where advanced technology was used destructively rather than constructively—is the disease of modernity.  There is an epidemic of depression in modern society, as psychiatry explicitly acknowledged in a 1992 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association devoted to analyzing it.  Modern depression has been connected to the peculiar inhumanity, making for the insincere, shallow relations between people typical of so-called contractual society as distinct from community, accompanied by feelings of isolation, rootlessness, and alienation, pervasive in modern mass society.  Such a society is a breeding ground for insincerity, which is a breeding ground for indifference—crimes against humanity, whether in the gross form of the death camps, or in the political form of deception—a subtler crime against humanity.  Deception is a virtually everyday occurrence in the current presidential campaign.  Barack Obama’s cashing in on the “magical powers of presidential speech” (The Economist, September 15, 2012, p. 33) with his delusional rhetoric about the American Dream—George Carlin noted that one had to be asleep to believe it—competes with Paul Ryan’s “pack of lies” (Newsweek, September 17, 2012, p. 44) for credibility.  Just as “there is ‘no penalty,’ these days, for political deceit,” the Newsweek writer notes, so there is ‘no penalty’ for artistic deceit, as the art market demonstrates.  Deceptive conceptual art and deceptive political art have the same gullibility-inducing hypocrisy.  Let us recall that “hypocrisy” derives from the Greek word for “playacting.” 

Now what to me is striking about Frey’s art is that it celebrates human presence and individuality in its differentiated variety, and it does so using the comparatively primitive technology of ceramics.  It is sincerely concerned with human beings—real living human beings—adult men and women, and children of all ages.  Her ceramic oven turns dead clay into vital human beings, while the ovens of Auschwitz turned dead human beings into dust.  The Nazis were all the more perverse and depraved because they insincerely led their victims to believe they were going to take a cleansing shower rather than going to their deaths.  The comparison of the use of the ceramic oven and the oven in which people were burned like garbage may be farfetched, but the point I want to make is that Frey’s art is an antidote to the poisonous indifference to the human in modern mass society.  Frey does not treat human beings indifferently, but takes them seriously.  Nothing human is alien to her, while for the Nazis many people were subhuman aliens. 

And crucially, Frey’s human beings form a family—a family in her mind, as the “artist mind” title of many of her works indicate.  Family Portrait, 1995 makes this conspicuously clear.  The central bust-length male figure may be the most important member of the family, but the other figures are just as differentiated, and his confrontational position suggests that he is the protective guardian of the family.  They form a united whole, holding their own against the world.  Even when they seem to fade away, losing the colors that breathe life into them, in Decline and Fall of Western Civilization, 1992, they stand together, forming a tightly integrated whole, harmonious however ruined and ghostly.  Frey’s work stands comparison with Robert Arnason’s similarly titled work, which is a sum of scattered fragments that can never again come together to form a whole, while Frey’s work suggests that the family of man—to refer to the famous exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art—remains whole however under social attack, and however sometimes the men and women in the family seem at odds, as the fact that they face in opposite directions in Artist/Mind/Studio/World Series II, 1992 and III, 1993 suggests.  The dominance of the central female figure suggests that this may be a feminist statement, but the men and women stand close together, forming a dense, tightly packed whole, with the outward facing men like guardians protecting the family from the outside world—the world outside the studio and the artist’s mind. 

There is a self-protective, insular look to Frey’s group portraits, suggesting that her art is a kind of protest against inhumane, impersonal, anonymous American society:  intimate, personal, “humanizing” relationships are preferable to it.  One may say she saw through the deceptive American Dream, withdrawing into a dream of her own family-like community.  Her recurrent use of red and blue—however illuminated by white and contoured in black, as though to reconcile them—is modern, as Kandinsky suggested when he said the tension between them formed a “dissonant modern music,” but unlike Kandinsky, who repudiated figural form in favor of so-called pure form, her works remain humanistic. 

Both Frey and Arnason were rooted in California—unlike rootless would-be international New York artists—which I think is in part responsible for the human authenticity of their work, conspicuously evident in their self-portraits, however different the attitude that informs them:  Arnason’s self-portraits are often hilariously extroverted, while Frey’s are introverted, and tend to be sober—she never clowns around, as Arnason does (she’s not making faces at the public, but facing herself)—even when she cracks a smile, as in the classically inspired standing Self-Portrait with Vase, 1978.  It is the same statuesque pose that the nude with the vase in Artist’s Mind/Studio/World Series I, 1993 has, confirming Frey’s awareness of the grand tradition of ancient sculpture.  The nude may be ghostly white, but her red lips and the blue vase bring her to “modern” life.  Frey looks very feminine in the Self-Portrait with Vase and very masculine in the Untitled (Standing Viola), 1975-77—she’s wearing her work clothes, her sturdy, powerful body visible underneath them, and her pose that of an ancient emperor.  They represent two sides of the same person, raising the question of how reconcilable they were—how is one to reconcile the discomforting grimace, verging on the grotesque (evident in the disturbed Frey of Junkyard Dream, 1975), with the happy smile?  It is the not unfamiliar problem of the Janus-headed figure that symbolizes inner conflict—the self divided against itself.  Frey’s ability to innovatively use traditional figurative models is one of the strengths of her art, all the more so because she enlists them in the service of emotional sincerity.       

Frey shows herself as she is in her mind, which is the same way she shows her family:  she is one of them even when she is alone with herself.  She is sincere with herself, and her art deals with sincere people—people who are sincerely themselves and sincere with other people, which is why they form a convincing family—as they exist in her mind, more particularly, her memory.  Representational art at its best is imbued with memory as well as immediacy—the immediacy of color and form, the memory of lived experience, equally insistent and informing each other.  The “link between memory and sense-of-identity is the key to the aspect of experience that, cumulatively, serves as the evidence against which we assess our intuitive judgment of the quality of sincerity as an aspect of the character of other people.”  These are the words of the psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer in his 1971 essay “Sincerity:  A Study in the Atmosphere of Human Relations.”  (Collected Papers, London 1994, p. 196).  Frey is a student of the atmosphere of human relations.  Her art cumulatively dwells on people in an attempt to assess, express, and communicate the quality of sincerity that gives them their character and that pervades the atmosphere between them. 

Transforming them into works of art she treats them with the aesthetic respect that announces their sincerity—and her own.  To show that other people—that anyone or anything other than oneself—has aesthetic character or significance is to recognize the dignity their sincerity confers on them.  I am arguing that to intuit the aesthetic quality of external reality is to recognize that it is sincerely given and that one is relating to it sincerely, which means that one is sincerely oneself.  The sincerity of one’s identity is informed and reinforced by the sincerity of the identity of others.  They in effect become the family with which one is identified and which is a fundamental source of one’s own identity.  However emotionally alienated and socially separated from one’s family, it remains an unconscious part of oneself.  Unlike so much modern art, Frey’s art is not about alienation, involving indifference to and denial of the uniqueness of the other, but identification with the unique other.  It is her empathic way of confirming her own uniqueness.  Her sincerity and respect for sincerity in others, evident, I want to emphasize, in her making the aesthetics of their being manifest, is also evident in the sincerity with which she respects the nature of her medium—the earthy character of clay—as the oddly gritty, seemingly raw surface and rough-hewn look of her sculptural figures, shows.  It is completely at odds with the slick, facile surface and “cool,” impersonal look of Warhol’s portraits of celebrities.  They are indicative of his and their insincerity, and of Warhol’s indifference to their “underlying” humanness—they are all too human despite their manufactured appearance.  The all-too-human is built into clay as it is not in Warhol’s brand-name photographs, however nominally ironical.     
To fully understand what Frey’s art of the mind—the family psychodynamics of her mind—is about I need to call on Meltzer again.  Her art involves the externalization of “internal objects, the internal world and its family-like organization—a very big family indeed, with a core of idealized parts clustered about idealized objects and a periphery of more or less alienated ‘relatives’ and ‘strangers’ composed of the split-off bad aspects of self and objects.  The clustering on the one hand and alienation of parts on the other that takes place in psychic reality is in constant interaction through the processes of projection and introjection with figures in the outside world” (200).  Frey’s group portraits are remarkable examples of the dialectical simultaneity of clustering and alienation that takes place in the family of internal objects that universally compose psychic reality, which is why they are among the emotionally realistic and aesthetically compelling works of modern art.  They are also modern because the figures seem socially alienated from one another even as they cluster together to defiantly form a family privately holding its own against the larger American society.  The monumentality of Frey’s figures give them a public character, but their interior life—their minds, the quality of their consciousness and sincerity, their alert, serious faces and intense, complex emotions—is more to their point.