New York

Nancy Fried

Grahm Modern

The intensity of Nancy Fried’s ceramic sculptures has always come from their grounding in autobiography. In the mid ’80s Fried was making small, painted terra-cotta works that presented isolated female figures in various extreme emotional states. Their loneliness, despair, hatred, and longing were linked to Fried’s own feelings, and represented a cathartic purging for the artist of painful early experiences. Autobiography still drives Fried’s work. Since undergoing a radical mastectomy, a bilateral ovarian cystectomy, and an appendectomy, the artist has begun making small terra-cotta heads and torsos that express her emotional reactions to these operations. These sculptures might be understood as the products of an advanced stage of mourning, in which an individual begins to accept the loss of an object. There are 18 terra-cotta sculptures here, 14 of which are one-breasted torsos, violently truncated at the neck and waist. Each is headless and bears the scar of mastectomy, and some are cracked at the belly or the neck.

Despite their unsettling nature, they are triumphant. Fried confronts the viewer openly with her pain. Both Breast Flap and Breast Patch (all works, 1989) challenge our society’s obsession with masking loss. The artist rejects such denial and gives us the truth of the matter, palatable or not. Fried draws from a variety of art-historical sources. While her torsos may recall classical fragments, they dramatically alter the tradition of the female nude. Formal beauty is replaced with enigmatic presence. Fried’s sculptures are closer to prehistoric fertility goddesses than to classical depictions of Venus; the influence of South American votive figures is evident as well. Like Louise Bourgeois, Fried uses the human body as a starting point for an exploration of distortion and disfigurement. She uses snapshots of herself as well as her own mirror images to guide her in sculpting these heads and torsos, and she does not idealize what she sees. Nonetheless, these veristic self-portraits communicate powerfully and universally.

Fried’s progress in expressing a sense of personal tragedy through sculpture is evident throughout this exhibition. In Thorned Head, a head is covered with thorns; Cradling Her Sorrow consists of a torso whose arms hold yet another grieving head. Here Fried invokes the Christian symbology of the mater dolorosa, a symbol of mourning, and the crown of thorns, a symbol of martyrdom. The subject of these new sculptures becomes not mastectomy, but mourning itself. By combining her own likeness with these symbols for grief and suffering, Fried has strengthened her message. She addresses the suffering of another in works such as Memorial for My Niece’s Lost Youth. Here, she represents a torso whose belly has been cracked open, using the natural effect of the cracked clay to enhance the drama of this theme. By exploring another’s grief, she gains some distance from her own. Fried’s work, which has always been concerned with loss, runs the risk of becoming utterly melancholic. Having articulated mourning with such success, she now faces the challenge of moving beyond it.

Jenifer P. Borum