Viola Frey: A Lasting Legacy

by Kenneth R. Trapp



Man Balancing an Urn and Man with Portland Vases have vessels as their focus. Again, it is impossible to look at these sculptures as simply formal statements divorced from any meaning. Frey's intellectual curiosity and her interest in art and art history preclude dismissing attempts to decode her message. At its most fundamental, the urn is emblematic of mankind's ingenuity in discovering how to manipulate the natural world for benefit. The urn is a symbol of clay and of pottery-making from time immemorial to the present. At another level, the urn is an emblem of culture and the man-made world. By placing the urn in a precarious position in relationship to the man, Frey seems to say that the relationship between man and what he makes is a fragile bond.

A third use of the vessel is seen in Man with Portland Vases. By invoking the ancient Roman glass vase -- known as the Portland Vase -- and its reproduction in porcelain by Wedgwood, Frey relates the figure to specific times in history and to specific objects. The Portland Vase is one of the high points in human history; indeed, the history of the vase is as romantic and intriguing as the vase itself is magnificent in conception and execution. In a gesture of offering, the man seems to extend culture and art to the viewer. There is an expression of hope and morality about this sculpture that is moving.

The artistic choices Frey made in creating her monumental sculptures offer insight into their meaning. Determined Man and Seated Man, Foot Poised on the World are symbols of power, in particular the corporate world in a global economy. Such men make decisions that affect people of all socio-economic levels around the world. To most of the billions of people on Earth, the corporate world is anonymous just as the visages of Frey's men hide behind their solemn masks of anonymity.

The inverted signs of Seated Man, Foot Poised on the World, in which the Earth is treated like a soccer ball while the giant man toys with the planet, cannot help but be read as a comment on current events. What comes to mind is the vulnerability of the Earth at the hands of mankind. Frey depicts a man -- Mankind -- as larger than the Earth, but we know the reverse is true. In the end it is the Earth that will continue.

Frey returned to the nude figure in her late work, some twenty years after she began to explore the time-honored subject. Here, the reclining nudes, Resting Woman I, Cascading Tresses and Resting Woman II, Arm Outstretched, hark back to an ancient tradition of presenting the human body in idealized, naturalistic form. Frey's nudes are not idealized, but neither are they total abstractions. The body language of the reclining nudes is anything but idealized. These nudes project distress, pain, and vulnerability, which are specific emotions. While it is impossible to relate to these nudes as specific women -- women with known names and personalities -- the viewer can relate to their emotions as specific and real.

The three unglazed whiteware sculptures are a revelation; she glazed them white, knowing she was near death, and would not have the time to glaze them fully in color. The whiteware figures approximate plaster or marble in their paleness. Although Standing White Majestic Man and Seated White Majestic Woman continue the abstracted representation of the human figure so well-established in the Twentieth Century, their lineage goes back thousands of years to the classical world. The lack of color glaze reinforces the monumentality of the figures because form and mass become the focus.

Continuing the urn shape are the six blown glass amphorae that Frey painted. These pieces are a variation on themes of shape, color, and figurative painting. The variously colored glass shapes are vehicles for painted decoration. The six amphorae synthesize Frey's lifelong preoccupation with vessel, materials, color, and painting and drawing. That Frey turned her attention to glass is no accident. Glass and clay and glazes whose basic ingredients are sand -- are earthen materials transformed by fire.

Frey treated these amphorae like flat canvas more than curving forms. The rapid, vigorous drawings and colors are full of life and suggested movement and all have direct bloodlines to various expressionist painting movements in the Twentieth Century, from Picasso and Cubism to German Expressionism to Abstract Expressionism.

In her seven decades, Viola Frey lived life to the fullest. She leaves behind an impressive body of art that deserves ongoing re-evaluation. By not yielding to the mind set that art and craft are enemies, at worst, or separate and unequal art forms, at best, Frey loosened the artistic constraints that fettered both painting and ceramics. This is her lasting legacy. .

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