Monumental Figures with Psychological Messages

Article excerpt

AS A WOMAN BORN IN 1933 (D 2004), VIOLA FREY decided early on that she wanted to be an artist, first studying art at Stockton College. At the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, she studied painting with Richard Diebenkorn and ceramics with Vernon Coykendall and Charles Fiske. During Master's studies in New Orleans, she took a workshop with Mark Rothko. In this era, women were objects (not artists) in books; The Feminine Mystique and gender issues were not addressed. As Frey settled in Oakland, she began a bricolage collection, some of which found its way into her sculpture, which became known for its nude women and men with suits, among other forms.

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It is interesting that today leading critics still disagree about what these forms suggest. What are the intentions and signifiers in Frey's body of work, including that on view at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in Manhattan? At a 4 October, 2012 panel on the artist's work at the New York University's Graduate Centre, critic Donald Kuspit's main argument was that Frey's art "holds out the possibility of sincerity in an insincere world" while Museum of Art and Design Curator Lowery Stokes Sims suggested that Frey's "explosive" use of materials, her representation of tensions between genders and her use of enormous sizes and scale were subversive and were her codified way of addressing the gender issues of her day.

Since I do not claim expertise, it is important to present the views of the Frey panellists before presenting my own. It is curious to me that, given their topic "Viola Frey: Making the Self", three of four panellists failed to even nod to the strong psychological and gender issues in Frey's art. The first speaker was Sharon Tanenbaum, the new executive director of the Artist's Legacy Foundation designed to promote the legacy of deceased artists; Frey donated her art and estate to create the ALF. Tanenbaum gave an audiovisual overview of Frey's art.

Kuspit's presentation "The Pursuit of Sincerity: Viola Frey's Figurative Sculpture" was unusual, wandering quickly from the new OED definition of 'sincerity' to Damien Hirst and Barak Obama. Kuspit then discussed how Frey's "humanizing" art portrays "sincere people" who form a "convincing family". He mentioned "a core of idealised parts clustered about idealised objects and a periphery of more or less alienated 'relatives' and 'strangers' composed of the split-off bad aspects of self and objects" before closing by saying Frey's art "celebrates human presence and individuality in its differentiated variety and it does so using the comparatively primitive technology of ceramics" and that "the quality of their consciousness and sincerity, their alert, serious faces and intense, complex emotions--is more to their point." Kuspit's entire talk did not name one specific art work by Frey. This talk did not seem 'sincere' to me. (All quotes from a transcript of the talk.)

Panellist Robert Cozzolino, essayist for the Hoffman Gallery exhibition Viola Frey: Echoes of Images, suggested that motifs of self dominate Frey's body of work and that these and other images were cross-pollinated in her studio. Cozzolino posited that a 19 x 19 x 2 inch ceramic plate, Artist Observing, shows the artist's self--her hands holding eyeglasses and her work gloves. Cozzolino's interpretation of the three figures in the centre of the plate--a woman running with a baby, her back to a man with one arm raised--is quite different from my own. Cozzolino sees this as a "woman striding forward" and a man "waving to someone outside the space of the plate" while I interpreted this as an overt sign of a family in discord or abuse. Since this work was created in 1977 and is frequently exhibited/published, am I the only one to see, in the man's raised arm and in the running mother with her back to the man and a baby in her arms, the artist's message that she sees the mother's distress? …