Saturday, July 24, 2010

Viola Frey - "Wow"

The work of Viola Frey is fascinating to me. From the mid-1950s to her passing in 2004, Viola Frey broke boundaries in ceramics. She is known for her larger-than-life monumental ceramic figures of men in power suits and women either clothed, inspired by the fashions of the ‘50s, or dressed in pink in their birthday suits.

Her innovative method to create these pieces, sometimes in excess of 10 feet tall and weighing thousands of pounds, included sculpting the clay figures in their entirety, then letting the clay figure to dry. She would then saw the figure into pieces, each of which were individually glazed and fired in a kiln. Once fired, the 100 pound (or more) pieces were painted by Frey and then reassembled into the final sculpture. In contrast to their larger-than-life scale, many of the colossal figures that Frey produced were inspired by the artist's collection of ceramic kitsch, which she reused many times. She was also influenced by her family, especially her grandmothers and mother, artists Mark Rothko, Henri Matisse and Andy Warhol.

Frey often sculpted women holding the world or gazing at it, placing them in a position of power. She created men standing, walking, seated or fallen, wearing their nature and vulnerabilities in their suits and their visages. Frey also made smaller ceramic sculptures--sometimes hand-built, at other times slip-cast.

Frey was a longtime resident of the Bay Area, and her influence is felt on multiple levels. Frey showed her work regularly and had several public artworks, including one at San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center. Perhaps more significantly, Frey was a member of the faculty of the California College of the Arts from the mid-1960s until her death, teaching ceramics to several generations of artists. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Frey helped to redefine the place of her medium in the art world, along with fellow Bay Area ceramic artists Robert Arneson, Manuel Neri, Peter Volkous, and others. And, lastly, as a woman working in a field often dominated by men and in accomplishing work on a scale taken on by few, Frey distinguished herself as an exceptional artist.

Frey was born in Lodi, California in 1933. She received her B.F.A. from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and her M.F.A. from Tulane University, New Orleans. She twice received an Artist’s Fellowship Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Arts Commission of San Francisco conferred on her an Award of Honor for Sculpture.

Frey, with the help of her assistant of 17 years, Sam Perry, worked until her death in 2004, even after having several strokes. Photo: Michael Tropea, Chicago, IL

009 - Ruth Mitchell - all rights reserved

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