Viola Frey: A Lasting Legacy

by Kenneth R. Trapp



As Frey's art matured, she began to receive critical acclaim in museum and gallery exhibitions across the country and in foreign venues. Her first major retrospective was organized by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento in 1981 when Frey was forty-eight. Although a mature woman, Frey was still young, an artist who had years of life ahead of her.

Whereas the 1960s were years of survival in which Frey had to sacrifice much to find the time for her art, in the 1970s art became her full focus. Life opened up for her and Frey was free to follow her chosen course. Moving back and forth between painting and ceramics, Frey was energized by the possibilities of both media. She was drawn to the human figure as a subject and to the rich effects of color, expressed in bold ceramics as her primary medium, the one for which she is best known today.

In the mid-1970s Frey began to create assemblages of small figurative works inspired by her collection of dime store figurines and bric-a-brac that she found in the Alameda Flea Market and junk stores in the Bay Area. Slip-cast in whiteware from existing figurines, these assemblages are referred to as bricolage. In French, a bricoleur or bricoleuse is someone who performs odd handiwork around the house. Although the subtle nuances of these words are not fully translatable into English, the literal meaning of bricolage is the thing a bricoleur patches together out of trash or junk. Such objects are, however, more than recycled trash, for they are imbued with personal associations and powers the artist bestows on them.

The anthropological and philosophical depth of bricolage is discussed in Claude Lévi-Strauss's The Savage Mind, a book Frey read and thought about for years since its publication in 1962. Frey could easily relate to Lévi-Strauss's analysis because of her background, growing up on a farm where machinery and implements were not discarded but saved to recycle or put to new uses. This hoarding mentality would later become the conceptual foundation for some of Frey's most innovative and inspired work. It found its way into her own life as she became an inveterate gatherer of mass-produced flea market figurines.

It is impossible to over estimate the psychological significance of the figurines and knickknacks Frey collected. Each piece carried with it the fact that it was reused, saved, and valued again by someone new, even a stranger. Frey's collection comprised an inanimate family, surrogate assistants who helped to inspire her. Her bricolage pieces reinvest value in what is commonly devalued in our throwaway culture, especially among the educated connoisseurs who presume to be the arbiters of true and correct taste. In a circular process, kitsch objects -- the vicarious aspirations toward art of the poorly educated -- are appropriated by the educated artist to become the subject matter that comments about the world around us.

Frey was well aware that figurines can say things about us that we dare not say openly. Although figurines of Mexicans, Chinese, Arabs, and Africans, and exotic dancers, kings and queens, acrobats, and slaves, might seem innocent, such objects often carry a host of cultural biases and stereotypes that their owners might have been unwilling to admit. Figurines are a perfect metaphor for "The Other" -- disenfranchised people who are defined by the ruling class and have no say in how they are defined in popular culture.

Frey's sumptuous bricolage pieces are a variation within the fine sculptural figurine tradition established most notably by the Meissen, Sèvres, and Staffordshire potteries in Europe. The bricolage pieces shown in this exhibition relate to the figurine tradition in their whiteware beginning, a tradition supported by wealthy patrons. Frey's bricolage pieces are not porcelain; they are glazed in color and are of intimate scale. Frey's pieces are saved from sentimentality by the choice of subjects she assembles and by the expressionistic color that creates a disintegrating and shimmering effect. Much like an exquisite gemstone, these bricolage pieces are meant to be savored and experienced one-to-one. The space they occupy is personal and private.

Frey's attraction to the found object and popular culture parallels the interest of other Western artists throughout the Twentieth Century. The list of artists who used found objects or sought inspiration from popular culture in their work is long and includes Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol, to name a few. Frey's concentration on the human figure places her within the Bay Area Figurative and the California Funk movements of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. David Park, Robert Arneson, Richard Shaw, and David Gihooly were among the artists who were Frey's confederates.


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