Viola Frey, a powerful woman and rule-busting artist, has not been given enough credit for the ways in which she changed the game for artists working in clay. The exhibition currently at Nancy Hoffman Gallery should help to remedy that problem. The show, entitled Viola Frey: A Personal Iconography, is a thrilling if somewhat uneven overview of what I would call, unabashedly, an important artist of the late 20th century.
That the work in the show is uneven is, to me, part of what made Frey a brilliant artist. She didn’t shy away from working outside the safe zone of her iconic and critically successful large-scale figurative sculpture, even making paintings and drawings toward the end of her career. The exhibition divides her phases of work into three discrete parts. In the first room, the walls are lined with fifteen of Frey’s big ceramic sculptural platters. Measuring about 25 inches in diameter, they are small universes unto themselves, bursting with color, form, narrative, and humor. The earliest is from 1978, and the last is dated to 2001–02. These pieces are among the best examples of Frey at the height of her powers. Bold, thick, some might say “crude” applications of clay elements intermingle with slip-cast tchotchkes, ceramic objects often mocked for their kitsch associations. And the whole beautiful mess is tied together by big, loopy brushstrokes of glaze, like Abstract Expressionism gone mad.
“Untitled 1987,” one of the strongest works in the show, features a dark green figure in silhouette. With minimal facial features, its body is broken into boldly abstracted and flattened shapes. It (I read it as a “he”) reaches to the left with one big hand that is slightly disconnected from his body. Next to him, a very proper bun-wearing woman also looks to the left. Small, slip-cast horses emerge from the bottom of the platter on which the two figures stand. They all live in the same bumpy, lumpy, and colorful universe, but aren’t really talking to one another. This piece, as with all the works in this series, is an entire short story in the round, full of psychological mystery, pathos, and slapstick humor.
Frey’s slip-casted objects from hobby shops have often been read as political commentary on cultural iconography and consumerism as a way, I think, to justify her mad love for these totally mundane objects. I would posit that she used them simply because she dug the way they looked; they are funny, irreverent, and poke at the conventional ceramic world, which in the past has sometimes strained in over-seriousness to get the mainstream art world to pay attention. Her deliberate use of objects that many ceramic artists would rather pretend didn’t exist was a fresh, iconoclastic choice.
The featured element of “Untitled Plate #16” is a slip-cast figurine of a troubadour that Frey overpainted with glaze, emphasizing his slightly sour expression in drippy, odd colors. Surrounding him is a mass of slip-cast objects that look like bits and pieces of a fevered dream as they climb and slither over one another. Veils of glossy, glazed color layer on top of each other in a delicious melt. Glaze takes on the hard surface of glass and its visual properties of being opaque, translucent, matte, or transparent. The hook, and part of what is so seductive to ceramic lovers, is that this is a glass surface that can be applied with a brush, enabling the artist to work a surface in ways that reflect the best of both mediums.
Frey used more than one glaze, sometimes causing two glazes to react, though she generally opted for a variety of matte and gloss low-fire glazes (many of them commercially made) using shiny and slightly garish bold colors that toyed with the traditional glazes of pottery. Frey’s works are a creation of both control and serendipity. The dance between precisely drawn lines and the uncontrolled results of chance chemical reactions is downright irresistible.
The second room of the gallery contains one of the monumental figures that brought Frey great attention in the ’80s and ’90s. Entitled “Falling Man in Blue Suit” (1991), the piece is a mere 89 inches high, medium-size in comparison to many of the pieces from this era, many of which soared to twelve feet — an extraordinary accomplishment in clay. Up close to this fallen man you are able to see Frey’s vigorous and committed brushwork. The color flows, as if on its own, both defining and defying the form underneath. Working on a ceramic “canvas” of this size allowed her to use huge brushstrokes, and it’s important to note that no one had fused figurative ceramic sculpture with this kind of intense painterly surface (in glaze) until Viola Frey.
Frey’s work evolved during a particular explosion of artistic energy in Northern California. Painters such as Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Joan Brown, and ceramicists like Robert Arneson and Peter Voulkos (to mention only a very few) were forging a new art history in the 1950s and ‘60s. Viola Frey was an integral part of this movement, and yet her sculpture captures the energy of her milieu much more effectively than do her paintings. Her works on canvas seem tentative and unfinished, and are surprisingly passive next to her sculptural work. It’s an interesting example of how an artist’s hand can change radically between media. Her huge pastel drawing entitled “Untitled Polyptch (Greek Hag, Brown seated Man),” on the other hand, does capture some of the same pulsing energy that is seen in the sculpture of the first room.
The exhibition’s third room showcases work that Viola Frey produced as an artist-in-residence in the Sèvres ceramic factory in France in the late 1980s. They are lovely, small, very traditional ceramic forms, cups, plates, and vases. Using the ceramic forms produced in the factory, Frey drew delicate line and wash drawings of men and women on the vessels’ exteriors, only gently venturing into the inner space of a cup with dabs of color. I love that she made these pots. I love that Viola Frey was willing to experiment with forms and techniques that so obviously were not her cup of tea (no pun intended). They are polite, in sharp distinction to the punk rock attitude of the work in the front room. There are those who will greatly appreciate this gentle riff on traditional ceramics more than me, and for them this work may be sublime. For me it is the first room of this show that really showcases everything that made Viola Frey a groundbreaking artist in her chosen medium and a brilliant, important artist, full stop.
Viola Frey: A Personal Iconography continues at Nancy Hoffman Gallery (520 W 27th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 27.