Viola Frey: A Lasting Legacy

by Kenneth R. Trapp



Frey's other figurative sculpture varies in scale from small non-bricolage pieces to life-size figures to monumental sculptures measuring eight to ten feet. Frey's figures are, in general, mask-like generic types. Although these sculptures have been referred to as Everyman, the archetype that represents humanity, they are in fact specific to race and gender. The facial features of Frey's figures are, for the most part, Caucasian. No doubt Frey believed that it would have been inappropriate for her to address people of color because she was white and her worldview was informed by that fact. A second specificity is seen in Frey's use of costume to identify gender: women in dresses reinforce cultural ideals of femininity and men in suits-cum-uniforms identify the figures not only as males but as corporate types.

Frey literally built her monumental sculptures. They are feats of ceramic expertise, glaze chemistry, and engineering as much as they are works of art and that fact bore directly on the final aesthetic decisions Frey had to make.

Maintaining the center of gravity was crucial in keeping the figures balanced and stable. Interestingly, the arms and outspread hands of Man Balancing an Urn; Seated Man, Foot Poised on the World; Stubborn Woman, Orange Hands; and Seated White Majestic Woman, are the equivalent of buttresses that support cathedral walls. The large standing figures often have arms and hands close to the body in order to maintain their stability. Projecting arms and hands presented structural problems and for that reason are not prevalent in Frey's work.

In making her monumental pieces, Frey hand built individual sections that weighed forty to fifty pounds, a size and weight she could handle by herself or with an assistant. These sections were then bolted together to create the final form. The vertical and horizontal figures were conceived like three-dimensional puzzles. Because these monumental pieces were labor intensive and took months to make, Frey's working method precluded spontaneity. The colored glazes, however, could be applied spontaneously in an expressionistic manner. The static forms and loosely painted glazes in Frey's personal palette create tensions between surface and mass that are visually dazzling.

Frey's monumental pieces are similar to architecture in that they are to be seen as a whole first before they are understood secondly as discrete parts. And like architecture, these pieces occupy public space, although Frey claimed she wanted them to reside in that uneasy space between the personal and the public. These figures consume space. It is impossible to be near them and not feel uneasy; they loom and intimidate and make the viewer feel small and vulnerable.

Just as the miniaturization of a figure creates an abstract form, so the opposite is true. The very fact that Frey giganticized -- to use her word -- the human form creates an abstract figure that is recognizable as a human being but is known to be unnatural in size. Several writers have noted that Frey's monumental figures are metaphors for power. By titling two of her standing figures, Determined Man and Determined Woman, Frey establishes their mental and emotional body language. Without determination there is no power. For most Americans size and power are intertwined -- size does matter. A discrete motif in the monumental figures shown in this exhibition is the oversized hand. Hands are spread wide as supports, held with palms upright as a gesture of welcome or holding something, or held up at breast level facing each other as a reinforcement of speaking, a personal body language. More noticeable, however, is the bright red-orange color of several hands. While we cannot read Frey's mind to answer why hands and colors are so obvious, it is also true that she has also presented signs and symbols whose meanings are shared commonly in our culture. Red is associated with danger and excitement, a color used to stimulate the senses. By using red to draw attention to the hands of her figures, Frey had made a conscious choice, but whether this was done for aesthetic or personal reasons is unknown. By emphasizing hands in such an obvious way, Frey acknowledged their significance. The human hand, with its opposable thumb, separates Homo sapiens from all other earthly creatures and is a universal symbol of strength, power, protection, and creativity.

A second motif that runs through this exhibition is the vessel seen in three forms: urn, amphora, and vase. Most obvious is the large, unglazed vessel Frey titled White Amphora. This piece is most specific in alluding to classical antiquity and to an implied function -- a burial urn. On a literal level, the urn refers to the history of objects and to the history of clay. Because of its architectonic scale, the White Amphora falls within the recent discourse of the vessel as architecture. Interestingly, White Amphora brings Frey's personal history with ceramics full circle to her beginning work in which she was drawn to Japanese and other ceramic traditions as a vessel maker.


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