Interview: The Monumental FIgures of Viola Frey @ RAM

Apr. 25, 2009
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With the "Bigger, Better, More: The Art of Viola Frey" exhibition finally installed at the Racine Art Museum, Executive Director Bruce Pepich breathes a sigh of relief. Frey's monumental work, several pieces borrowed from the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) and the Hirschhorn Museum (Washington, D.C.), often came delivered in 18 crates that weighed between 100 to 500 pounds each in shipping one individual sculpture. Since the RAM's renovation from the original dry goods department store used their old wooden floors, the ability of these floors to support the artwork's weight became a concern for the exhibition team and Pepich, which they continually kept recalculating. Because Frey went without a dealer in the Midwest this retrospective that continues through August 16 allows the Milwaukee and Chicago metro areas to view Frey's work, which won international attention, and becomes the first museum exhibit after her death. Pepich explains the importance of Viola Frey (1933-2004), painter, sculptor, and ceramicist.

1.What is so important about the Viola Frey retrospective?
The exhibit was designed to show the signposts along the way in her career, but that she was well received with over 50 shows and acquired art dealers and collectors all along the East and West coasts of the country. She was one of the key people who cracked the barrier between craft and fine art, putting ceramics in between painting and sculpture, to consider it as fine art. Also it shows the way Frey flowed between painting and ceramics so major museums began collecting her work even though it was [constructed of] clay, because it became so monumental…Her work is valuable, large and fragile….This all started in 1984 with her first solo show at the Whitney.

2. Frey originally began studying and creating her work at the California College of the Arts in the San Francisco Bay area. How did this location affect her work?
Frey lived and worked tirelessly, living most of her life in the Bay area…..The Bay area was a hotbed of ceramics in the 50's and 60's, but there were many abstract painters that dealt with figurative work at that time. But she used and applied glaze like the American Abstract painters. They [Frey's figures] also have an incredible presence because of the size, and she brought in abstract expressionism in the way she used glazes, portrayed her clothes. With her hue colors [displaying] using the options of pop art she made a synthesis of her, these art styles with her signature pieces.

3. What are Frey's signature pieces?
Her early sculptures began working with very large forms and plate structures. Then she moved to self portraits, and The Grandmother Series, larger than life female figures. Her pieces just became bigger and bigger. A lot of the pieces are semi-autobiographical… including the oversized plate Double Self Dialogue and Possessions, similar to a pop art image of Wedgwood with silhouettes of herself and her possessions on the bottom… In Junkyard Planet we see molds of old figurines that had been valued by someone and then discarded, which she continually collected. Frey's family portraits have a toy like quality…in some of the pieces the glaze is used like she would handle paint… She looked at the history of ceramics, what the bright colors of mosaics and tiles were like… You read her work like tile, read the breaks like an installation. Yet when you look at these pieces the colors crash, mingle and flow⎯orange fingers and big, red lips.

4. These pieces incorporate bricolage…something Frey's work in renowned for. What exactly is this?
Bricolage is like collage but not the same. Collage is more planned, intentional. But this is about gathering materials that are available to you. In Viola's case she collected all sorts of things from flea markets including odd china figurines. So as these things appealed to her she made molds out of them and put them in her pieces, especially Woody Woodpecker, rooster heads, and dolls. She's using molded pieces in an unusual way…an appropriation of beautiful, kitschy things… She also was buying molds from Greenware factories, so they became toy like pieces where this imagery comes into her head from the things that she collected….like ghost imagery because [when they were remolded by Frey] some of the details were missing. This is a more intuitive and relaxed approach…her studio was filled with drawing and objects she collected… She would also clip images from Vogue for patterns of dress, as visual resources to use on her sculptures… They all were touchstones for her work.

5. And these odd and old collections defined Frey's artwork?

Along with using knickknacks for molds, she also used stencils [from the objects] that she incorporated, that became a vernacular and process that she would use in her paintings. She painted and drew throughout her career…she honored these low art images bringing them into high art. Someone made them, owned them, and loved them, but then they were discarded. So Frey's pieces have a great poignancy.

6. Is there anything else about Viola Frey you would like us to know?
Frey was going great guns in the 80's and 90's, but then slowed because of her health. This is the first retrospective since her death, and the exhibit required great care and feeding, because the work is still fragile even though monumental. They [the sculptures] are screwed together with metal bolts, assembled from the bottom up. The large pieces are hand assembled and you hand tighten each bolts…Also Frey was short, so making these monumental pieces was difficult for her…Yet the fun of work like this is you don't get everything right away. And the exhibit is one of the first times 2-D and 3-D works have been shown together, including her pastel from 1980 China Goddess Series that displays the same vernacular as her sculptures, even though her clay work brought her international fame….Now so much of her work belongs to the Artists Legacy Foundation, which collects artist's estates and thoughtfully disperses and cares for their work. The foundation also gives scholarships to young artists, so that Frey continues to mentor these artists through her legacy of documents, molds and art.


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