The Arts Center has a great exhibit in its main galleries (Wolfe and Rockefeller) that I’m betting will be a huge crowd-pleaser: “Bigger, Better, More: The Art of Viola Frey.” Some will compare it favorably to the former show in that space, World of the Pharaohs, which put the Arts Center’s finances in the ditch, though the two really shouldn’t be compared. I have to say, however, Frey is more fun.
Frey (pronounced Fry) fixed her star in the (mostly male) galaxy of American ceramic artists with monumental ceramic figures and assemblages of kitsch figurines. “Bigger, Better, More” features paintings, sculpture, vessels and wall-mounted plates; contributing pieces to the exibit are the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.; the Butler Institute of American Art and other fine arts collections. It’s a significant show that offers a rare opportunity to walk among, and be dwarfed by, the work of the late California artist.
Frey’s bulky and flattened colossi, glazed in bright colors; her bricolage pieces that combine mermaids, roosters, China goddesses and the like, and her wall-sized paintings fill the Rockefeller and Wolfe galleries with Cubist sensibilities and the color and gesture of Matisse. It is work that is both personal, reflecting the role of men and women in her life, and iconic, thanks to her obsession with junk. An example here of the two combined is the 7-foot-tall, 7-foot-tall “Family Portrait,” in which men in suits and women in dresses stand amid a cluster of nostalgia — the Mandarin figurine, the boy with a bat, a milkmaid.
Frey’s hand-built figures have wide-eyed expressions and stiff forms; she worked in sections of clay so massive the figures had to be cut apart before they could be fired and glazed. Frey applies paint to the sculpture as Cezanne or Picasso would to plane, giving her figures green cheeks, yellow noses, red hands, blue shadows. Male figures more than eight feet tall take an intimidating pose, arms akimbo and heads tilted down toward the viewer. She often represents women in flowered dresses and hats and heels, drawn from the women in her life, who were strong in their own way. “Double Grandmothers with Black and White Dresses,” two 7-foot-plus women with forearms extended, dominate the space around them.
The figurines appear in her two-dimensional work — as themselves as objects, filling a room from which a man is fleeing (“Studio View”), or as subject, creating a garden tableau of jointed doll, fawn, little girl (“China Goddess Painting”) — representations of representations of archetypes. Frey also makes monuments of her assemblages — in “Junkman,” she’s stacked slipcasts of Woody Woodpecker, a train, a putti, a horse head, the tugboat “Little Toot,” glazed the sculpture in white and painted over it in China paint. For all her love of massive form, Frey has a beautiful line.
An excellent catalog that accompanies the exhibit (available for sale in the gift shop) discusses the largest painting in the exhibit, “Studio View: Man in Doorway,” in which a man heads for the doorway to leave a room swirling in hundreds of objects:
“For Frey, figure and figurine, person and sculpture, were compellingly conflated, as she danced her life with a her ultimate partner, art. Ambitious and ambiguous this epic painting is a final, frenetic assertion of how idiosyncratic, confrontational, and — even when it depicts departure — how emphatically and intensely personal the art of Viola Frey can be.”
The show runs through Nov. 28.