San Francisco

Viola Frey

Rena Bransten Gallery

Since the early ’80s, Viola Frey has been prodding the outer surfaces of her ceramic sculptures to get the physical form together with a patchy, transfiguring impetus. In going for this extra vitality, she’s moved away from a prior refinement. Now thick, drawling paint and pitted overglazes coat the figurative contours, mimicking enlarged effects of light and shade, and suggesting internal anatomy, too. Sometimes the modeled forms are so swamped as to seem complicated supports for high-keyed painting; at best, however, the paint helps the eye follow each volume around from any angle so the figures’ three-dimensionality appears more blatant. It’s as if Frey were purposely reversing the procedure that Jean-Paul Sartre claimed for Alberto Giacometti’s thin people: she’s putting the fat back on space.

Of the eight ceramic pieces in this show (all 1987), five were isolated male or female figures about one-and-a-half times life-size. These huge statues hold themselves up within a centerless gravity. Four of them—two nudes and two suited figures supported on big flat feet and towering with chunky sections stacked from the hips up—seem absorbed with keeping themselves coherent and in balance; like cigar-store Indians, they look breathless and cramped. Their petitioning gestures turn clunkily inward. It’s not a giganticism that enjoys itself as Niki de Saint-Phalle’s “Nanas” or Claes Olden-burg’s aggrandized household objects do. Frey’s private giants are helpless in their excess the way real-life giants are. Perhaps her message is that modern humanity’s self-image ranks grossly among nature’s overstatements, and therein lie both its despair and its charm. In that respect, the curled-up Untitled (Prone Man), who has an unconventional antique grace, is the most candid of the big works: his frame assents wistfully to gravity where the others seem thwarted, consigned to android musings on how to manage their upright, extended hulks.

The other three sculptures were compacted figure groups in the round. More temperate than the single figures, they take Frey’s paint less lugubriously and enjoy freer, coordinatedly implied motions. Each group, set upon its mock-formal plinth, stands for a scaled-down mental set, a tableau of sculptural impulses and memories. Untitled (Surprised Group), facing in one direction only, heaps art-historical figurines at the feet of a couple of Frey’s sturdier businessman characters while, in the background, a female nude clamps a hand over her mouth. The piece has an ingenious, airy symmetry, an abstract clarity that defines all the characters sociably—you know them, and more than that, you feel you want to know them.

Frey wants to bring the inside out and the outside in. In sculpture, this means allowing the surface to dissolve between vagaries of what the three-dimensional object resists making visible. Frey’s painted sculptures always imply either more or less than “skin.” On the other hand, her drawings (represented in the gallery by 13 large works from 1986 and ’87 in pastel or charcoal on paper) accommodate contrary directional shifts with no dissipation of surface. Why do sculptors’ drawings often appear so especially accurate and limber? Frey’s indulge her sense of incident; they reveal a storytelling bent that freestanding sculpture can’t help but deflect.

Bill Berkson