I first saw a piece of Viola Frey’s work at the Oakland Museum perhaps fifteen years ago, a large ceramic figure—maybe nine feet tall, a man in a suit. The figure leaned forward stiffly, shoulders hunched up, and wore an aggressive, threatening expression. The encounter made a lasting impression which settled somewhere in a strangely equivocal inner space.
What was the meaning of the brightly colored glaze on this menacing figure? I tried to read into the oversized, cartoonish figure some social commentary, but it didn't feel like that. The colorful glazes lend her figures a peculiar, off-beat force. It's hard to buy Frey’s own explanation—that the bright color was simply an expedient for bringing the figures out against the greenery of her backyard studio. She continued to use the same bright colors long after she moved her studio to a large commercial building in West Oakland.
In those first few minutes of seeing the figure, it did not occur to me that Frey’s bright, simplified colors perfectly locate us at the surface of these figures whose body language, along with the jarring colors, foreclose the possibility of sympathetic connection. Are we meant to experience an uneasy, even anxious, feeling of separation and disconnection?
The height of the piece, requiring one to look up, immediately locates one in childhood where the tense figure becomes a parent, or at least an adult to the viewer’s child. Frey’s use of distorted proportionality, exaggerating the size of the head and the hands, adds to this effect. The distortion brings them closer, suggesting the intrusive crossing of personal boundaries.
Somehow all this and other factors must have come through for the impression of the ceramic man to have lodged so deeply.
Rather than standing for social commentary, Frey's figures seem rooted in the realm of the interpersonal and private. I see them now as images from an inner landscape. They seem to reflect memories of vulnerability and an absence of nurturing connections.
A great deal of Frey’s work seems rooted in this inner realm, especially the earlier work—although it can not really be isolated from the larger world of social forces in which it is contained. In any case, these thoughts, however briefly sketched, came long after the original encounter and after having actually met the artist herself.
Meeting the Artist
One overcast morning, I headed off into an old industrial section of West Oakland to meet the artist at her studio. Like many of the buildings there, the facade gives nothing away. At the a door set into an impersonal, two-story wall abutting the sidewalk, I found a small button and pressed it.
I’d first contacted Frey by phone a few days earlier. Had she known I might call? "Yes," she said. I waited in vain for another word.
"Squeak (painter Squeak Carnwath) told you a little about me, I hope," I added after an awkward silence.
"That I publish a magazine and wanted to do an interview?"
"She told me."
"Well," I stumbled a little, "I wondered if I could come down and meet you, and then maybe we could take it from there."
"You can come down."
This little exchange had left me with a mixture of feelings I wasn’t prepared for. So much more is conveyed in an exchange than simply the words, and Frey’s condensed and unembellished replies gave me pause. Earlier I’d asked Squeak how she thought an interview with Frey might go. Now I recalled the brief hesitation that had preceded her response.
I'd pressed the button and now a man opened the studio door (sculptor Dennis Gallagher, who has a studio in Frey’s building) and led me in. The place must have been a warehouse or small manufacturing business and now an atmosphere of benign neglect prevailed. We walked down a dim little hallway and passed through a door into a large, open, skylit warehouse space. There Frey’s huge, brightly colored ceramic sculptures stood about everywhere.
I was unprepared for the visual impact, having come with no expectations of what her studio might look like. Instead, I’d been preoccupied with thoughts of what Frey herself might be like and on how the interview might go. The scene that met my eyes was astonishing. It had something of the effect one experiences when, having driven miles through a plateau of unremarkable conifer forest, one suddenly breaks out of the trees to find oneself at the edge of the Grand Canyon.
More than any other artist I’ve met, Viola Frey brings into sharp relief the divide that lies between talking about art and art itself. One may not feel this gap at all in the presence of artists comfortable with speaking about their work. Some are so interesting to talk with one forgets everything and is carried along, enchanted. With Frey however, there was a gap, and it took on an almost physical presence.
In the recent past, Frey had suffered a number of serious health problems, including more than one stroke. She moved around her studio with some difficulty. No doubt, in part, this contributed to the difficulties of conversation. But after awhile, I sensed that Frey simply guarded the personal realm from any intrusion. And we were meeting for the first time. I was a stranger. Time after time, my efforts to get her to look inward and to talk about what she found there were rebuffed and I began to feel like an intruder.
On the other hand, I came to understand that Frey’s statements carried a weight which often I’d failed to grasp at first. In retrospect, I see some of her deceptively simple statements as carrying great personal significance. For instance, "I had to be an artist to survive," that one should abjure "good taste" in favor of "bad taste," and that "one had to be a good worker." To pass these statements over lightly, and others like them, would be to miss the artist at an existential ground level.
While arguments can be made that aspects of Frey’s work place her in a postmodern context—primarily her free play in the use of cultural artifacts—my deeper impressions lead me to think otherwise. The value she places on labor, on finding one’s own work apart from the fashions of the day, implying a rootedness in authentic experience—places her in an earlier time. And there is something else that's difficult to describe with much precision. It has to do with the practice of artmaking as a vital journey. For Frey, artmaking was first and, most deeply, a personal quest.
In spite of her reduced physical powers, Frey continued to put in steady work in her studio five or six days a week right up to the end. The first time I visited the studio, she gave me free rein. I wandered among the monumental figures, the tools and tables, racks of glazes and rolling platforms, the greenware, the large bowls, wall tiles, drawings, ladders, and odds and ends, with camera in hand.
At one point, while lining up a shot, I noticed Frey get up and leave her office. She made her way slowly between two massive amphoras, past a monumental seated woman, around a huge unfired businessman, and toward a table where a number of her large bowls sat. Reaching the table, she began quietly working on the bowl’s glaze with a painter’s brush.
Seeing her there, solitary and compact, among these giants, it was difficult to imagine this hobbling woman was the same one who had made them all—who’d been able to make them all. In that moment I saw her as a mythic figure—an image distilled from forgotten movies of the past, or was it from books? Working quietly, she was the very image of the heroic artist living unknown among us.
Besides giving me access to the main space of her studio, Frey invited me to explore the back rooms on two floors which contained many other examples of her work over the years. As I made my way from room to room, I was struck by the variety of strategies and forms she’d explored in her work. The scope of the creative capacity made visible in this way was quite striking in itself. As I stood before many of her pieces, the question of the relationship between art and the unconscious was inevitably evoked. In many of her plates, for instance, there is the obvious presence of the past. A close inspection will lead one inevitably, it seems to me, to speculations about what some of the particular images might represent in reference to her early life.
At the heart of her work, and the quality about it that must have drawn many students to hold her in such high regard (almost in worshipful regard, as I’m told), is something I’m tempted to call a quality of purity, a word that must sound strangely out of place today.
It did not occur to me for awhile that as I spent time with her, the deep feeling of respect that crept into me almost unnoticed was, in its own way, a significant piece of information. This feeling that quietly appeared did not come because I happened to like a particular piece of work, or because I noticed that her work happened to be well made. All that was true, but this feeling was called forth by something else more fundamental and difficult to specify.
It is necessary to add one more thing. Just as it's possible to know intuitively when one stands before the work of real originality, it's also possible to know when a quality is present in the work which, in the past, was called virtue. How can anyone speak of virtue in the artworld today? But strangely enough, I feel it's the right word. I even feel fortunate that it came up. Seeing this solitary figure in my mind's eye continuing her work, I'm brought to the question one asks of monks. Does prayer help the world?
On the last visit to her studio I noticed that one of the large pieces, which in my earlier visits had not been fired, had now been fired. It had been placed in relation to a large glazed sphere, the world. It was a man sitting on the floor with his knees bent and one foot placed against the world, as if to give it a push. I mentioned this to Viola who was sitting in her office just a few feet away. "That’s the piece I saw when I first came here. You’ve been working on it, right?" I asked.
"Yes," she said, "He’s kicking the world."
I paused, thinking of how to respond.
"Does he know he’s kicking it?" I asked.
"That’s the question," she replied.
Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.
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