Interviewsand Articles


Who Makes Originals, Ever?: A Conversation with Viola Frey

by Richard Whittaker, Aug 8, 2002




I first saw a piece of Viola Frey’s work at the Oakland Museum many 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 knock on the bourgeoisie, but it didn't feel like that. The colorful glaze, striking an odd note, lent the work a peculiar off-beat force. Frey’s own explanation—that the bright color was simply an expedient for bringing the figures out against the greenery of her backyard studio—is cryptic. She had continued to use the same bright colors long after she moved her studio to a large commercial building in West Oakland. 
     It didn't 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, might reduce the possibility of sympathetic connection. Are we meant to experience an uneasy, even anxious sense 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 a distorted proportionality, exaggerating the size of the head and the hands, must have added to this effect. The hands and face would be felt as coming closer, suggesting an intrusion across personal boundaries.
Rather than suggesting some kind of social commentary, it seems to me that Frey's figures are rooted in the realm of the interpersonal and private. I see them now as images from an inner landscape, reflecting the persistence of memories of vulnerability and the absence of nurturing connections. 
     But long before such thoughts had even entered my mind, the idea of interviewing Frey had. But it wouldn't happen for a long time. It took some support from Squeak Carnwath, before I took the first step. I sent a copy of the magazine and then, a few weeks later, made a phone call.

Frey was willing. She gave me the address of her studio in downtown Oakland. The following interview is pieced together from more than one meeting with the artist. These few visits to Frey's studio left an indelible impression, as did Frey herself. It wasn't the easiest interview I ever did, but without a doubt, one of the most memorable. Although I found the artist a bit difficult to draw out, an entirely unanticipated feeling of deep affection towards her arose in me in the midst of one of our sessions. Perhaps she felt it in some way. I'd read a lot of what had been written about her. I knew she had a piece at
Bellagio and I began by bringing up Las Vegas…

Richard Whittaker:  I was in Las Vegas for the first time in twenty years about a year ago. I just drove through it.

Viola Frey:  It’s all fake, all fiberglass. Just all copy. Who makes originals ever? But I would like to see it.

RW:  Have you ever been there?

VF:  No. I have no plans of going there. [Frey shows me an article about the piece of hers at Bellagio in Las Vegas]

RW:  You like what the writer said?

VF:  Yes, because she gives a sense of place in the beginning of the article. I thought that was very good.

RW:  I noticed the phrase in that article that "your work gives back what has been taken away." Do you have a sense of what she might have meant?

VF:  It’s all fiberglass and imitation. Someone has to create the original, so it’s all a hollow thing. It has a big vacancy in it.

RW:  I can’t say I’m satisfied with what has been written about you and your work.

VF:  Well, there’s always that.

RW:  But you like the way the term bricolage has been applied to your work, right?

VFBricolage. It’s a fine word. Bricoleur is used a lot in France. It means "handyman" so that’s why I had to change it to the feminine form, bricoleuse. It’s putting stuff together and is connected with Structuralist stuff from the 70s.

RW:  Part of what I understand in how the term has been used in relation to your work -- and I’m not a student of Levi-Strauss -- is that by working with figurines you’ve found, say at flea markets...

VF:  The left-overs...

RW:  Yes. That by including these commercially produced figures, as you have in many of your pieces, you bring in the meanings attached to these figures—the cultural aura they carry around with them, so to speak. So it’s not just working with figures, as forms, but it’s also about working with these meanings they carry, in a way. Bringing these into the work.

VF:  Sure.

RW:  You’re not still teaching, is that right?

VF:  No, thank goodness.

RW:  What do you think about teaching art? Can it be taught?

VF:  I think technical things, you can teach. I think you teach because the students need something. Otherwise they would just be out there with no direction or anything, so you have some power as a teacher... [noise interruption in studio]

RW:  Did you come from a background that was supportive of the arts?

VF:  I came from Lodi, a background where there was none. They didn’t even know what art was. They didn’t know it was something "you shouldn’t be doing." I was able to do anything I wanted.

RW:  What was it that drew you to art?

VF:  You have to be an artist to survive. That’s one thing I learned. A lot of extraneous things were eliminated because of that. I learned how to concentrate on doing my work.

RW:  Why is it that you say you have to be an artist in order to survive?

VF:  I don’t know the "why."

RW:  What is it about it then?

VF:  That’s a hard one.

RW:  If you were not being an artist, you wouldn’t survive. That’s what you’re saying.

VF:  Yes.

RW:  There’s something crucial there, isn’t there? Something really central.

VF:  Yes.

RW:  Has your work evolved in essential ways, or is there something that is the same from very early on?

VF:  I think there is something the same from early on. I’m not sure what it is.

RW:  Have you reflected at all about that?

VF:  Not so much, because there is so much work involved in these things you just have to be a good worker. And you have to like that. I remember in the sixties I did a lot of work that involved the artist as a worker. [She looks for a catalog] Here’s a double self-portrait. At that time I felt that I liked doubles because the eye couldn’t be passive. The viewer had to go from one to the other to see why they were similar and why they were not similar.

RW:  In one article a writer observes that in the large ceramic figures the women often seem to be in positions of reaction, while the men, though stiff, tend to have aggressive body language. You must have given thought to all that.

VF:  All those things I’ve thought about a lot. But what I thought about them, who knows?

RW:  Why do you use the bright colors?

VF:  Because when I originally started, I started in my back yard. It was just a way of creating something against all of the greenery. Everything grows like crazy in Oakland. I just had to do something, and these colors all pop out against the green.

RW:  The pieces would move into a gallery where they would no longer be in that setting against the green and here in your studio [no longer in her home] there’s no problem like that, but you keep using the bright colors anyway.

VF:  Yes. That’s just the way it goes.

RW:  You like them, I guess.

VF:  Sometimes I try... that thing in Bellagio’s [Frey goes to retrieve a photo] - You can see that the colors here are very subdued. And this is the kind of article I like which gives a sense of the difference between the artwork and the environment -- the alienation that is part of it.

RW:  The alienation in the environment?

VF:  Yes. And this environment is Las Vegas so...

RW:  In a way, the essence of alienation.

VF:  Absolutely. I think that’s perhaps what it’s about. What Las Vegas is about.

RW:  It’s certainly about being distracted, entertained.

VF:  Well it’s amazing how the entertainment industry has overtaken everything. It’s even overtaken the arts to a great extent. That’s the reason for the big installation pieces. I just feel that my art is like installation art while it’s here in the studio, so I don’t have to go to the effort of doing specific installation pieces. I think a person has just one installation piece, and all they do is keep on repeating the same piece over and over again. But that’s true of everything.

RW:  What’s the beginning of a piece for you.

VF:  I usually know what I’m going to do. You have to know where you’re going to be ending in order to be able to start.

RW:  You can visualize the piece before you begin.

VF:  You have to. What I do is I start the piece... [We walk out into the working area where a large piece is in progress. The clay has not not yet been fired.] I have to build and fire the legs first. It’s a long time lag between the start of the piece and the completion.

RW:  The figure over there, for instance, with the shoulders hunched—you envisioned that from the start?

VF:  To some extent. Not completely.

RW:  How do you decide, while you’re working, whether to make it more hunched or less hunched?

VF:  Just the way I feel when I’m working. These two pieces, the yellow one and the red-legged one here are early pieces - those were done at the time when I had the show at the Whitney. I didn’t send these to the Whitney, I kept them.

RW:  In your earlier pieces, were your men more tense, in general?

VF:  They vary, but they were more tense. These were done in the 80’s, and there was a lot of tension in those figures, it’s true.

RW:  The current figures have less tension. Does that represent some kind of change in yourself, do you think?

VF:  It might, who knows?

RW:  You’re not much given to intellectualizing about your work or talking much about your process or your thinking, it seems.

VF:  Probably not. You can look at the catalogs; they have a lot of stuff in them. I don’t want… people can say what they want. I can’t really direct it. You put it out there, and all you can do is accept what other people feel and have to say about the work.

RW:  Is there a place for what the artist feels and thinks?

VF:  Well apparently there is now. There seems to be a lot of interest in it, but for the artist, it usually comes down to a very simple... [long pause]

RW:  You were saying, for the artist it comes down to a very simple...

VF:  To build it, do it. To understand the skills. I mean the amount of stuff required just to make a piece is just enormous.

RW:  Well, I can imagine that referring to many things - what’s required to make a piece - but I take it you’re talking about the technical aspects.

VF:  Which I don’t like to emphasize, but they are there. These are double walls [pointing to one of her large figures made in sections]. They have walls this thick [holding her hands apart about 8 inches]. They’re hollow.

RW:  You make these large figures one piece at a time?

VF:  They’re constructed all together and then they’re sawed apart when they’re dry. There’s all these little technical things you have to go through in order to be able to arrive at this point [indicating a finished figure].

RW:  You have to overcome cracking, for one thing, right? Shrinkage.

VF:  The shrinkage with this clay is not too bad because they dry all together. They’re built wet and then when they’re completely dry, they’re cut apart and put into the kiln for the first firing. Then the second firing is the stage they’re at now.

RW:  You came from Lodi. Is that a farm community?

VF:  It was grape vineyards. God knows what it is now.

RW:  I take it you wanted out of that life.

VF:  I never wanted to go back.

RW:  When did you come to the Bay Area?

VF:  1955, I think.

RW:  You taught at California College of Arts and Crafts a long time. Many students attend the school, and maybe they have dreams of becoming famous artists. Of course, very few...

VF:  Ever have the internal fortitude to do it. They just stop. It’s such a difficult area to go into and times always change...

RW:  Was this a topic you addressed in your classes?

VF:  Absolutely. I also told them that anyone could be an artist, but whether they wanted to be an artist—that was the real question. The need to be an artist was always primary, and some people just don’t need to be artists. That’s the real question students have to ask themselves. Whether they really want to do it or not, and most of them don’t.
     There was an equation I learned. For every two years you did, doing artwork, you could afford one year off. But the majority of time had to be spent doing artwork.

RW:  There can be a lot of discouragement involved. Maybe a certain kind of work can’t be done except after one reaches certain levels of discouragement.

VF:  You have to reach a plateau. I remember in the 60’s I was very much aware I was reaching a plateau, and I had to pause to gear up for another reach.

RW:  Did you stop, or what happened?

VF:  No, I always kept working, but there was a plateau. That’s why my back yard was so important because there I was able to see the work. Here, since I’ve bought this building, I don’t have the same sense. In the back yard, I knew that… I knew what public sculpture was. I knew I couldn’t do public sculpture in a back yard because... and it also had to be vertical because if it went horizontal, I didn’t have enough space for the work to exist in. Storage was always a problem.

RW:  In the process of working do you have special moments of feeling? How is it for you? An even keel sort of thing or...?

VF:  Well it’s a very long process. It’s gotten much more even, but there were a lot of ups and downs.

RW:  Do you have a point at which you feel satisfied with the process?

VF:  Well, the process—I don’t think it takes over, but there’s a point at which the work just has to stand on its own. An artist can’t always dictate what the piece is going to be like. You can try, but that’s about it.

RW:  Agnes Martin, the painter, talks a lot about how the artist struggles and how there’s a lot of failure to arrive at something one seeks. But then sometimes, she says, almost miraculously it seems, something is reached or achieved, and she calls that "a moment of perfection." And she says you can’t hold on to such moments.

VF:  I can see that. Right now, these big vases, they’re perfect, but they can’t stay that way because they’re not fired yet. I like them right now, the way they look. [Frey walks off and I follow her around the studio.]

RW:  Now these are drawings. Do you draw sometimes before you do your sculpture?

VF:  Not before, just during. I like drawings because drawings are really direct, and they reveal the subject matter much more clearly than something that takes a year to make.

RW:  [standing before one of Frey’s massive six-foot high vases with colorful glazes and figures painted on the surface] What led you to make such huge vases? They’re reminiscent of those ancient Greek amphoras with the painted figures. Is there a connnection there? They’re amazing.

VF:  They’re very handsome, yes. I used to be much more interested in them. This one is actually a model of the Roman vase that Wedgewood copied and so these are all take-offs on that form. What I liked about Wedgewood was that he was a very enlightened employer. He had this huge factory when he was the artist in charge, and he had good labor policies. He had good health and safety procedures, and the workers liked working there. This is in 18th century England. The Portland vase was a copy. Originally, it was in glass.
     I did another piece based on Wedgewood, a group of ten or twelve figures which ranged from Wedgewood to a man holding a gun. The way Wedgewood started out was as an individual artist and then it became a committee - decisions made by a committee - then it became a company. Ultimately it became a big conglomerate and now you could blow Wedgewood up and no one would even notice.

RW:  And so is the gun a reference to that last part? I’m asking because I’m wondering how did you get to a figure with a gun?

VF:  That’s because I was held up with a gun near where I live and those things sort of stick in the mind. So I incorporated the gun imagery into the work. I did about ten or twelve bronzes. I’ve never done them in clay.

RW:  Did you start early on making these very large figures?

VF:  No, they just grew larger, and now they’re getting a little smaller because you realize that when they get that large you can’t really see them.
     The slip cast pieces, which is another group of work I’s just interesting how molds over hundreds of years remain in the culture. You can’t push them out. I spent three or four years at the manufacturer, De Sevre, in Paris which is the original place where they make slip cast pieces. And I must say, that whole factory exists and is just kept going, I think, for the workers. It was an interesting place to be.

RW:  When were you there?

VF:  A few years ago. Once I was there for three months and other times for one or two months.

RW:  Do you speak French?

VF:  No. But when you encounter people who are working, it doesn’t matter.

RW:  Did you notice any interesting differences between France and here in relation to art?

VF:  I just got the feeling in Paris that everything was not as avant-garde as they think it might be.

RW:  Is that an interesting question to you, what is or isn’t avant-garde?

VF:  I don’t think it’s a very interesting question, because things are only avant-garde in terms of the time you’re in.

RW:  What makes art good or bad?

VF:  All I know is this one thing from Salvador Dali, who’s an artist other artists don’t even like to mention. It’s a quote, but I can’t quite remember it...

RW:  Maybe you could just give the idea of it.

VF:  Well, it’s that good art only comes from bad taste. Which, when you think about it, it’s true. When you try to make art based on the best examples around, nothing ever happens. But if you do it from things that are considered bad taste, then you have a chance to create something.

RW:  What that makes me think of is not so much looking for "bad taste" as much as just looking for something which is your own - not trying to copy what one thinks is the desirable "thing to do."

VF:  And if you do it based on what is stylish, or is acceptably good, then you have nowhere to take it. ∆

Frey’s work is held in many museum collections. Her work can also be seen at Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco, The Frank Lloyd Gallery in Los Angeles, and at the Nancy Hoffman gallery in New York.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.  


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