Viola Frey

Ahead of the Curve


Back in the 1980s, when California was just starting to come into its own as an artistic center in a rapidly globalizing art world, a generation of artists no longer found it necessary to move to New York to advance their careers. That was a pretty big deal. Artists who stayed on the West Coast, including Mike Kelley, Alexis Smith, Lari Pittman, Jim Isermann, and Tim Ebner were heralded as hometown heroes, both for believing that California could hold its own against New York, especially as a place that sustained adventuresome contemporary art, and for delivering on that promise by making some of their generation’s most innovative works, some of which flirted with functionality.

Like many things Californian, that myth of start-up originality overlooked a considerable bit of history. More than twenty-five years before the artists from the 1980s were celebrated for putting California on the map of the international art world—by hunkering down on their home turf—Viola Frey did something similar, but with significantly less fanfare: As a 26-year-old, she turned her back on the East Coast and everything it had to offer in terms of a career and moved back to California, where she was born, in 1933, and where she stayed—and thrived—until she died in 2004.

Her path to that decision was more circuitous than it was for her compatriots from the 1980s. Born in Lodi, California, a farming town in the northern part of the central valley, halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento, Frey grew up in the middle of nowhere, at least in terms of art, and especially in the years following the Great Depression. After attending Stockton Delta College for a year, she transferred to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and graduated in 1956. She went on to Tulane University, in New Orleans, where she enrolled in the Master’s of Fine Arts program but left after a year, when she moved to New York, where she thought her interests as an artist would be best served. She lived in Manhattan, commuting 20 minutes each day to work at the Clay Art Center in Port Chester while also working part time as a bookkeeper at the Museum of Modern Art. Less than two years into that routine, which was essentially no different from that of any other young artist from out of town, Frey up and left. In 1960, an exhibition of Richard Diebenkorn’s figurative paintings inspired her to move to San Francisco. Attracted to the paintings made by the artists in the Bay Area Figurative School, Frey felt a generative kinship to their figurative imagery.

The rest is history. Without a job or any real prospects, she set up shop in a modest North Beach studio, took the bus around town, visited flea markets, and made tabletop assemblages from the figurative bric-a-brac she carried home in a shopping bag. Frey’s ceramic sculptures and paintings from those days were even more dynamic than her modestly scaled tableaux, their forms and figures accompanied by colors and textures that conveyed her conviction that the visible world was art’s point of departure: the physical space people share with one another, no matter how far afield an individual’s imagination might take things. Frey did just that, freely and furiously and fantastically, for the rest of her career.

If macho bravado characterized the art of those times, Frey did not shy away from its energy or ambitions. Nor did she waste any time complaining about its narrow-sighted limits. Instead, she made a place for a self-styled sort of swashbuckling effeminacy: a rambunctious, pleasure-seeking tousle with everything life had to offer, its ups-and-downs wrapped around one another in a free-spirited festival of the ordinary stuff that makes everyday life thrilling. Overlooked details and eccentric coincidences were given glorious form by Frey’s playful works, in which the ego—the artist’s and each viewer’s—took a back seat to intuitive, even subconscious connections between and among people, their surroundings and histories, not to mention our memories and fantasies. In a sense, Frey’s two- and three-dimensional works did for California what James Joyce’s Ulysses did for Dublin: celebrate life by attending to the emotional resonance of mundane activities and quotidian events. 

Frey’s decision to make her life as an artist in California also captures the major attributes that have identified art made on the West Coast over the last half century. These include: free-thinking independence; irreverent humor; unpretentious accessibility; sensuous physicality; simple enjoyment; awkward gracefulness; aw-shucks humility; subterranean sophistication; defy-the-odds optimism; and, above all, a loving embrace of everyday ordinariness—the sense that real beauty resides not in life’s high points, but in those otherwise overlooked moments between big events, big dramas, and headline-grabbing sensations, when unexpected loveliness bubbles up, often in the least likeliest of places and at the least likeliest of times.

Such salt-of-the-earth pragmatism has probably gotten in the way of Frey’s fame, at least during her lifetime. But since then, her scrappy stance and maverick sensibility have shown themselves to have great staying power. Today, a kind of big-picture, long-term, deeply generous vitality is palpable in Frey’s paintings, sculptures and ceramics, whose collective influence is on the upswing, predominantly among the next generation of artists in California—and New York—but also among those of us who have known Frey’s work from a distance, where we have missed the intimate kick of its originality and the peculiarity of its vision, which flies in the face of the idea that art is one thing and one thing only.

That multilayered multi-purposefulness is the heart-and-soul of Frey’s art, which began making a virtue of multi-tasking long before that activity came to define the way most of us make it through the day: doing more things more of the time than seems possible. Of course, we rarely do so with the casual abandon and disciplined intensity of Frey’s freewheeling fusions of painterly pleasure and sculptural solidity. All of her ceramic works do double-duty: Each is a three-dimensional form whose surfaces are jampacked with images, colors, and incidents that set a viewer’s imagination running every which way. Clay serves Frey perfectly. In her talented hands, it cozies up to sculpture and painting by managing to capture the best of both. Even better, Frey makes all three arts—sculpture, painting, and ceramics—more accessible and intriguing than each often is on its own. None of her ingenious works settles for business as usual.

This is especially evident in the works Frey made in France, at the Nationale Manufacture de Porcelaine at Sevres, on three sojourns there in the mid-1980s. The full range of her work at Sevres has never before been exhibited. It includes such traditional forms as urns, bowls, plates, and vases, as well as teapots, cups, and saucers. The silhouettes of Frey’s vessels are so elegant, delicate, and refined that they would satisfy Marie Antoinette. On each of the 10 in this exhibition, all made in 1988, Frey has glazed a slew of her signature figures—fleshy nude women (most of whom look calm, cool, and collected) and men in business suits (most of whom appear to be frantic, out of sorts, off their game). Like graffiti, Frey’s brushwork is loose, fluid, and whiplash. Like comics, her palette is bright, garish, and supersaturated. Often, thick black lines give her figures and patterns the feel of newspaper cartoons or children’s drawings.

The stories suggested by Frey’s figures are ambiguous and open-ended. No beginnings, middles, or ends can be discerned on the gracefully curved surfaces of her Sevres vessels. That’s the point of this series and her art in general: to get viewers in on the action, where we create our own stories in relation to Frey’s cartoon humans. No single interpretation captures all that unfolds. Answers are not the point. Conclusions never arrive. Both decorative and functional, pictorial and utilitarian, Frey’s cups, pots, and vases make it clear that she believes that people are capable of doing more than one thing at once: sipping tea and thinking deeply; chatting casually and observing astutely; nibbling biscuits and savoring memories; gazing at bouquets while daydreaming about ancient Greeks, not to mention current events and future possibilities.

This experiential richness goes hand-in-hand with Frey’s insistence that art, at its most powerful, in intimately entwined with everyday life. And this conviction flies in the face of the assumption that modern art is autonomous and needs to be ensconced in white-walled shrines where it demands 100% of our attention and leaves no room for anything other than that all-consuming confrontation. Frey is not so presumptuous. Nor absolutist. Her works embody the belief that nothing is all consuming, totally absorbing, drop-dead riveting. No single object, or blinding insight, is the be-all-and-end-all of anything. For her, human consciousness and perception are too supple and expansive to be limited to such singular focus.

So Frey leaves lots of room for insights to drift in from the periphery, at those odd little moments that open up our days and enrich our lives. The logic of collage—of stimulating juxtapositions—animates all of her works. Two-dimensional shapes and three-dimensional forms cross-pollinate. Form and function play tug-of-war. Silliness and seriousness intermingle, often promiscuously. Fun counts. Distractions matter, especially when they lead to further insights and deeper feelings. Loose ends are not tied off or wrapped up. They are cultivated. The same goes for rough edges. The little extras that can neither be anticipated nor controlled nor forgotten are what Frey is after in her art. There’s more to the picture than meets the eye in her multilayered works, all of which go to great to lengths to stick out like sore thumbs in our increasing streamlined world of instantaneous communication.

In the same way that Frey’s tableware makes a place for mind and body, pleasure and intellect, sensation and contemplation, her wall-mounted plates demonstrate, rather playfully, that taste is not an abstract idea but a bodily activity. The 19 platter-sized tondos in this exhibition, made from 1978 to 2002, insist that visual satisfaction is a form of corporeal sustenance—that eating and looking are two ways humans consume things. The cycle of life takes pointblank shape in her plates, which include skeletons as well as a fair share of death and destruction, mayhem and chaos. The wildly textured surfaces of these pieces erupt with people, places, and things that appear to be disintegrating. Sometimes they seem to be dissolving into the primal stew out of which all life burbled. At other times they look as if they have fallen into a cartoon washing machine, whose spin cycle is set on high.

Fate, and its inescapability, emerge as the big ideas that animate Frey’s raucous tondos. Comedy, however, is never far in the background. That combination gives Frey’s glazed reliefs a sense of well-rounded balance, a deep appreciation of life’s absurdities. Maturity and wisdom enter the picture surreptitiously, never directly or in a heavy-handed manner. The DNA of Frey’s plates includes strands that run back to the hooded figures in Philip Guston’s darkly comic paintings and the domestic spaces in Elizabeth Murray’s spunky marriages of abstraction and representation. Square-inch by square-inch, Frey’s plates are among the most explosive works of their generation.

Her large oils-on-canvas resemble several paintings laid side by side, their edges overlapping. Time-lapse photography comes to mind, or the frames of film, before everything went digital. In either case, Frey rarely paints a single moment in time. Instead, she shows several figures at multiple moments throughout the day, moving from one scene or situation to another as their lives unfold, slowly and steadily or suddenly and abruptly. That multiplicity suggests that life is not defined by singular instants but by the shifts between and among various fragments. It is a cumulative, compare-and-contrast series of adjustments that are never clear-cut or over-and-done-with but go on and on. This creates endless opportunities for reevaluation and reinterpretation.

The single sculpture in the exhibition similarly suggests that we are in the middle of things—that the story started before we came upon it and will continue long after we leave. The larger-than-lifesize businessman looks as if he is about to get back on his feet. The shock of having fallen—or been knocked down—hasn’t yet registered in his head or on his face. He, like us, is in an in-between state. Caught in the moment between an event and his comprehension of its significance, his limbs react faster than his intellect, which scrambles to keep up with the action.

That sense of doubleness energizes all of Frey’s art, from her tableware that serves food and drink as well as images and stories to her wall-mounted plates, which invite our imaginations to travel in many directions simultaneously. The edgy restless that percolates in her works ensures that nothing sits still, least of all us.

David Pagel 2015