New York

Viola Frey

Whitney Museum of American Art

I used to own a plate three feet long and shaped like a celery, so I know where Viola Frey is coming from. She has a doctorate in flea market. Her Still Life with Figurines, 1981, a sort of cornucopia out of control, sums up the spirit of 20th-century American ceramics, which has been our last frontier of folk art. But her plates are more than a display of kitsch virtuosity and camp scholarship; they are truly wild and seemingly in cahoots with the gods.

You think of gods when you stand near her ten bigger-than-life ceramic humanoids. They are like temple deities updated for the rat race. Man in Blue I, 1983, looks scarily like Walter Mondale, and he’s 9 feet tall. He is Mondale as much as any marble figure is Zeus. He is the shape and he is the gesture, and being 9 feet tall, he is appropriately too big, and being ceramic and built in pieces he is correctly hard on the outside and hollow on the inside. But what is perfect about him and the nine other figures here is the array of gestural archetype. Man in Blue I has the perfect power shrug, shoulders tensed forward, neck retracted, too-short arms at the ready.

Power Blue Suit, 1982, is a Kennedy from his hair to his suit to his arms-akimbo body language. He has no mouth but his posture speaks volumes. Me Man, 1983, is George Jessel, certainly a creature of archetype, captured here in the execution of a perfect borscht-belt asana. Fire Suit, 1982–83, is a modern Mars, tight lipped, crew cut, shoulders swept forward, looking like a Rip or a Red. Woman in Blue and Yellow II, 1983, is the frozen personification of come-hither defensiveness, with her push-off gestures of vulnerability.

The surfaces of these giants are pitted, pre-eroded, washed away from within. Some look as.though the skin were melting from staying out too long in the fallout. Some look as though the years had worn away several layers of different- colored paint, resulting in strange mixed hues in the skin and clothing. But some of the faces and some of the fabrics are out-and-out artful, like cubist makeup, or makeup based on split-brain theory, or sportswear inspired by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.

Like Red Grooms, Frey is a cartoonist who thinks big. Her giant ceramic figures are like gods of the average, illustrating gesture, figure, and expression as a realm of the lesser gods, depicting archetype in action, isolating the dynamics of cliché.

Glenn O'Brien