The di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art has staged a monumental exhibition of the art of Viola Frey, a contemporary ceramicist and painter who lived and worked in the Bay Area for over 40 years. “Viola Frey: Center Stage” is the first exhibition of her work in more than 20 years and the first retrospective on the West Coast.
Amy Owen, the curator of the show, was given carte blanche by the Artists Legacy Foundation in Oakland, which oversees Frey’s estate, to chose pieces from more than 2,500 works of art available in their collection. She chose works that would best showcased Frey’s depth and breadth as an artist. The show includes 12 works by Frey the di Rosa has in its permanent collection.
Frey was born in 1933 on a farm in Lodi. While her father and grandfather occupied the traditional family roles so common in the 1940s and ‘50s, it was the quiet power of her paternal grandmother that most inspired her. Her grandmother oversaw the maintenance of the vineyard, how the animals were kept, and did the book-keeping. Frey noted the difference between her active paternal grandmother, and rather passive maternal grandmother who occupied herself making quilts.
The inspiration Frey took in her paternal grandmother is evident in “Untitled (Grandmother Series)” from 1978. Frequent guests of the di Rosa will recognize her from the driveway by the Residence Gallery. She is a life-size sculpture of an old lady, wearing a straw hat with camellias on the brim, a short sleeved, collared blouse with pleated skirt and strappy “peeky toe” sandals. Her arms are raised, outstretched as if to offer a hug and she has a gentle, subtle smile.
This grandmother evokes the gentle dignity, most likely of Frey’s paternal grandmother, but also the generation of valley women who were intelligent, hard-working and kind. They knew the limitations of their station in life, but wielded a soft power—- that power to make their husband’s life hell unless they did what is right and moral, despite their masculine tendencies toward exploitation.
Grandmother is an emblem of an earlier, graceful time when women knew their place, but men were gentlemen who respected their wives. This in stark contrast to the way Frey would come to see the nature of the masculine sex as the 1960s and ‘70s wore on.
Viola Frey would never have called herself a feminist, as her grandmother never would have, perhaps because she rejected the fiery, revolutionary nature of the feminist movement, preferring instead the soft, witty but determined way her grandmother would get what she wanted.
But you can see in multiple pieces the tension she felt about the patriarchy that she grew up in, as well as the pain and destruction that patriarchy has wrought upon women and the world.
Owen said that “there are certain themes in this work that knock you over the head, like male and female power dynamics. The use of gender iconography, like the man in the suit and the nude female figure, represent symbols of power and control.
“But Frey’s use of monumental scale and expression invert traditional gender roles. I think the expressions are very telling. In a lot of the male figures, we see them looking down — anonymous, hesitant, and fearful, whereas the female figures are looking straight ahead — calm, confident and comfortable in their skin.”
There is no more better example of this than “Untitled (Female Nude and Man in Suit with Green Hair)” from 1985. The man in the grey suit is apprehending a smaller figure, which may be a child — its smaller stature seems to indicate that its more vulnerable. His hair is green, which may be a symbol of greed or desire. His face is red and his black eyes are piercing. He bares his teeth in an evil grimace.
Behind him stands a woman, nude, defiant, with her fists clenched. She has eyes, but are without pupils, so she can witness the injustice that is taking place, but is without a mouth so she’s incapable of voicing any protest. She is clearly enraged by this thief coming in and stealing this immature figure, but she is powerless to do anything about it.
At their feet are statues that have been knocked over, perhaps in the man’s haste to get at the small figure. This is clearly an example of someone who looks at men as cultureless insensitive heathens who, if they are not exploiting their subject, are out to destroy them.
In “Decline and Fall of Western Civilization” from 1992, which is widely considered to be her magnum opus, yet another man in a suit towers over the viewer with a perplexed and slightly angry look on his face. Next to him is a woman, who is shorter and seems wistful. Her lips are thick, red and puckered as if she is in suspended state of asking a question. She could be asking the man next to her: why? Simply why are things this way? Why do you treat me and the world this way? And the man, submerged in that toxic masculinity we so often experience, becomes angry at her threatening his authority, and the terror he feels at losing control to his once submissive but progressively enlightening wife, is writ large across is pallid, shiny face.
Frey never married. She did have a life partner, Charles Fisk, who was a ceramics historian, but they never lived together. You can see from from Frey’s work — the men in anonymous grey suits, a symbol of their authority — that she didn’t want to be dominated by someone who would supplant her own will to his.
Curating the show was a challenge, mainly because of how prolific Frey was. She constantly worked in her studio, to such an extent that she developed carpal tunnel syndrome due to the repetitive nature of working in clay. One wall of the gallery is covered in plates, presented in chronological order so viewers can see her artistic progression. Some are in dull brown and grey tones, but others are in vibrant reds and greens; progressively getting more complex. Owen said Frey would pump out sometimes six or seven of these a day.
If “Decline and Fall of Western Civilization” is the pinnacle of her sculptural oeuvre, then “Studio View: Man in Doorway,” executed in 1983, may be the equivalent of her paintings. In this monumental painting, nearly 6 feet tall, a man in Frey’s typical grey suit and brown Oxford shoes is striding, head first, out the door of her studio. He is leaving behind a clutter of forms, mostly human, almost all are doll-like. There are so many of them that they have become just an abstract mass. It’s almost as if he is rejecting the chaotic fertility of her studio and heading out, impatient because he can’t take it anymore.
At the center of the piece is a female Anubis figure in a black skirt who is dancing with yet another man in a grey suit, but this time the man has a blue and green mask on, somewhat reminiscent of what Spider-Man uses to cover his face. He is crouched, shorter than the Anubis, and gyrating his hips and waving his hands. They are clearly dancing. This time, the man’s face is covered, in an almost playful way. His identity is concealed, just like the man leaving the studio in a huff. But this guy is getting down with the woman figure. He’s obviously accepted the chaos and is finding it rejuvenating. Perhaps in order for any man to be accepted by her, he needs to wear a mask that is superhuman, and then he will understand, indeed, rejoice in, the wisdom of her chaos.
On the opposite side of the gallery, you have another man in a suit, and this time a bowler hat. In “H.K. in Doorway” from 1978, again, a man is standing in a doorway, but this time he is about to enter the room, on one of her incredibly varied plates. The plate is black, indicating that the room is dark. In the center, is a door, with the man looking into the room, light is coming from behind him, casting his shadow on the floor. The effect is ominous and impending. Who is this man, maybe coming home from work, who is going to disapprove of his wife spending all day in her studio, rather than doing the dishes, the laundry or making dinner?
There is, however, one man in the exhibition that is given favorable treatment. And that is in her China Goddess Series, executed between 1979 and 1981. This, Owen said, is her first work on a monumental scale. It’s composed of four figures and gets its name, we think, from the tallest figure, that of a Chinese woman in draping silk robes whose black hair is wrapped in two curlers on top of her head. The second statue is a young Venus de Milo. The third is a beautiful orange rooster. But the fourth is a man who is considered to be the one man in Frey’s life that was worth keeping: Charles Fisk.
His body is that of a wooden mechanical model; his joints are all spheres or round axels inside a casing. But his head, and particularly his face, is the most sensitive and clear of any of Frey’s work on display. It’s the most technically lifelike, the most real of all her work in the exhibition.
He doesn’t smile. Rather, his thin mouth is pursed. His nose is fine, coming to a delicate point and his eyes gaze out, pondering their focus with serious, genuine and neutral consideration, maybe even compassion. It’s also worth noting that he is not wearing an anonymous suit and his color is actually a peach, or light pink, reflecting actual human skin, which is in stark contrast to the bright, almost psychedelic, maybe even synthetic, colors of “Decline and Fall,” or the dull grayish brown of “Man with Green Hair” and “Studio View.”
The male sex has redeemed itself in Charles Fisk. Frey has portrayed his humanity with sensitivity, an honor with which no other man in the exhibition is accorded. While the male sex’s reputation may be one of exploitation and destruction, perhaps in Frey’s case, it’s in the specific individual from which kindness must come.
The message is this, and it’s something Frey may not have been aware of: we can’t judge a sex based on the reputation of a few — though there have been many — bad actors. But we can seek out those who are sensitive to our needs, and give us companionship, as well as the space we need to be authentic to who we are, as Fisk was to Frey.