Viola Frey: Who Makes Originals, Ever?
by Richard Whittaker, Feb 2, 2001
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 that settled somewhere in a strangely equivocal inner space.
What was the meaning of the brightly colored glaze on this imposing figure? I tried to read into its oversized, cartoonish quality some social commentary, but that didn't seem to fit. The colorful glaze lent this figure a peculiar, off-beat force.
I wondered about the artist's use of colorful glazes on her large figures and found it hard to accept the explanation she gave me—that the bright colors were simply an expedient for bringing the figures out against the background of greenery in her earlier backyard studio. She continued to use the same bright colors long after she moved her studio to a large commercial building in West Oakland. It was an expedient explanation, and who was I to pry?
When I saw the large ceramic man at the Oakland museum, it didn't occur to me that the jarring colors kept me at the surface and, along with the figure's body language, foreclosed the possibility of a sympathetic connection. The uneasy, even anxious, feeling of disconnection, is much closer to the point, I think. And the height of the piece, requiring one to look up, locates one in childhood where the tense figure becomes a parent, or at least an adult to the child in us. And the exaggerated size of the head and hands adds to this effect bringing the figure closer, perhaps suggesting the crossing of personal boundaries. All this must have contributed to the lasting impression made on me by the looming ceramic man.
While some of Frey's later figures are meant to be seen in a social/political context, most, it seems to me, are rooted in her own experience.
One overcast morning, I headed off into an 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 door set into an impersonal, two-story wall abutting the sidewalk, I found a small button and pressed it.
I’d first contacted Frey a few days earlier. Had she known I might call?
"Yes," she said. I waited in vain for another word.
"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 wondered if I could come down and meet you and maybe we could a conversation."
"You can come down."
This little exchange left me with a mixture of feelings I wasn’t prepared for. Earlier I’d asked Squeak how she thought an interview with Frey might go. Now I recalled her brief hesitation before she responded.
But there I was. I pressed the button and after a while, a man opened the door and led me in. It was easy to see that earlier, the place must have been a small manufacturing business. We walked down a dim hallway and opened a door into a large, sky-lit space. There, Frey’s huge, brightly colored ceramic sculptures stood about everywhere.
Preoccupied with thoughts of what Frey herself might be like and how the interview might go, the sudden appearance of this colorful array was a shock, a little like the effect one experiences when, having driven miles through an unremarkable conifer forest, suddenly one breaks through to the edge of the Grand Canyon. More than with any other artist I'd met, my experience of meeting Viola and seeing her work brought into sharp relief the divide that lies between talking about art and the art itself. The gap took on an almost physical presence.
By the time I met her that day, she had suffered a number of cancer-related surgeries and more than one stroke. In part, this must have contributed to the minimal responses she made to my questions on the phone. But after awhile, I sensed it was more than that. As each of my invitations to share something from her thoughts or experience were rebuffed, I began to feel like an intruder.
On the other hand, I came to understand that many of her deceptively simple statements carried great weight. "I had to be an artist to survive," or "one had to be a good worker." While arguments can be made that aspects of Frey’s work place her in a postmodern context, the value she placed on authenticity, on finding one’s own work apart from the fashions of the day, places her in an earlier time in which the artist's quest is honored as a vital journey. For Frey, art making was first and, most deeply, a personal quest. In spite of her reduced physical powers, she continued to put in steady work in her studio five or six days a week right up to the end.
The first thing Viola did when I arrived was suggest I take an unhurried tour of other rooms in her building. I wandered among her many works, from the monumental to those of lesser scale, the tools and tables, racks of glazes and rolling platforms, the green ware, the large bowls, wall tiles, drawings, ladders, and odds and ends, with my camera in hand.
At one point, while lining up a shot, Viola got up and 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 person 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, I saw 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 additional floors that 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 inevitably came to mind. In many of her plates, for instance, there's 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 difficulties in 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.
As I spent time with Viola that day, a deepening feeling of respect crept into me almost unnoticed. That in itself was a significant piece of information. This feeling did not come because I happened to like a particular piece or because I noticed that her work was well made. The feeling was called forth by something more fundamental.
It's necessary to add one more thing. Just as it's possible to know intuitively when one stands before work of real originality, it's also possible to know when a quality is present in the work which, in the far distant past, was called virtue. But how can anyone speak of virtue in the art world today? But to me, this is 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 my last visit to her studio I noticed that one of the large pieces, that 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.