Viola Frey: Works on Paper & Ceramics (1980-1989) @ Frieze London 2020

GAVLAK gallery is pleased to announce our partnership with the Artists’ Legacy Foundation to promote Viola Frey‘s estate and preserve the legacy of her practice. Accordingly, we are proud to participate in this year’s edition of Frieze Masters and present Viola Frey: Works on Paper & Ceramics (1980-1989,) a posthumous solo exhibition of the American sculptor and painter. This marks the artist’s first exhibition in London.

Viola Frey is best known for her larger-than-life, colorfully glazed ceramic sculptures of men and women that expanded the traditional limitations of ceramics in the 1960s and 1970s. She was a leading figure of the Funk art movement that debuted in the same period in Northern California and combined both painting and sculpture. During her formative years, she studied under talented artists such as the painter Mark Rothko, sculptor George Rickey and clay artist Katherine Choy who was actively engaged with the advancement of ceramic arts and established the Clay Art Center in Port Chester, NY in 1957.

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. 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.

Over the course of her five-decade career, Viola Frey produced a body of artwork ranging from ceramic and bronze sculptures, to paintings, drawings, and includes explorations in the mediums of glass and photography. With this presentation, GAVLAK will bring light to the artist’s largely overlooked, yet equally impressive works and will share the artist’s pastel on paper, paintings, and drawings with a wider audience.

Viola Frey: Works on Paper & Ceramics (1980-1989) comprises twelve works on paper. These lesser known works carry the powerful psychological undertones, heightened palette, and personal iconography present in Frey’s sculptures. The massive men characteristically appear in generic suits and ties, while the large female figures are often depicted in heavily patterned, 1950s-style dresses. Some of these works also include nudes, a form which Frey explored at different times in her life. Frey’s nudes are not idealized, nor are they total abstractions. The body language of the reclining nudes is anything but idealized. These nudes project distress, pain, and vulnerability. Although Frey’s artworks often borrows from the impressionists’ bright color palette, they convey a more serious and moody undertone. Most of her work remains enigmatic.

Frey was a passionate collector. Along with fine art, china, and books, she collected figurines and knick-knacks found at flea markets. This hoarding mentality would later become the conceptual foundation for some of Frey’s most innovative and inspired work. A selection of ceramic and glazes creations resulting from this process will be part of the exhibition. 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. Frey’s bricolage pieces reinvest value in what is commonly devalued in our throwaway culture. This is particularly representative of the ethics embedded within the Funk art movement, which was very critical of the booming consumer culture of the time. With these made from junk pieces, Frey created a complex personal iconography that explores power and gender dynamics.

Frey dedicated her whole life to her art, she worked from her Oakland studio in Northern California until the day of her death on July 26, 2004. In her will, she gifted her whole estate to the Artists’ Legacy Foundation that she had co-founded in 2000 along with painter Squeak Carnwath and community advocate Gary Knecht. Viola Frey left behind an impressive body of work that deserves ongoing re-evaluation. By not yielding to the mindset 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.

Viola Frey (1933–2004), a painter and sculptor, was born and raised in a farm in Lodi, CA. The artist went on to study at the California College of Arts and Crafts, where she graduated with a BFA in 1956. She then studied in New Orleans under Mark Rothko and George Rickey at Tulane University and left for New York in 1957 before finishing her graduate degree. There she joined Katherine Choy who had recently founded the Clay Art Center in Port Chester. Viola Frey was a pioneer in bridging the barrier between craft and fine art to push forward the medium of ceramic sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s. A lifelong teacher and maker, she retired as professor emerita from California College of the Arts in 1999, co-founded Artists’ Legacy Foundation in 2000, and continued to work until she passed away at the age of 70 in Oakland, CA. Her works are included in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.