Washington, D.C.

David Frye

Anton Gallery

David Frye’s first solo exhibition consisted of 35 (frequently very small) paintings, a rather large folding screen, and three artist’s books. The books consist of preexisting volumes that Frye has used both as source material and as armatures to paint on. Many of their pages have been fused together with thick coats of paint or woven with wire. Some have been entirely obscured with paint, others painted out and then illuminated with gestural figures or still lifes, and still others incorporate the original typography in abstract geometric patterns, usually checkerboard designs in gold, black, and white.

Frye displays his books standing upright and partly open. This not only reveals his visual manipulations, but also emphasizes the sculptural quality of the books, thereby underscoring the sanctity they have in our society as repositories of knowledge, while at the same time reducing this knowledge to a purely symbolic level (the books, of course, can no longer be read). Furthermore, as his earliest treated books suggest (these include works by Immanuel Kant and a catalogue of Andrew Wyeth’s Helga pictures), Frye is also playing with language’s role with respect to the circulation and institutionalization of art.

Frye’s paintings are characterized by rough surfaces built up of mixed materials, including wood, Styrofoam, and even oyster shells. Formed through an accretion of disjunct images, abstract patterns, and an occasional word, they are reminiscent of the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Compacted into a shallow cubist space, Frye’s imagery is organized around loose grids not unlike Adolf Gottlieb’s early pictographs, but without any of Gottlieb’s obvious archetypal symbolism. This organization, along with Frye’s restless drawing in black, his careful balancing of bright color, and his sense of allover design and patterning hold these paintings together. When mounted on ultramarine-blue laminated Formica panels with black frames, the effect is that of a gritty urban folk art transplanted to the pristine world of high art.

While Frye’s paintings, like his books, deal with art-world themes, their main focus is the self. Baby (all works 1990), for instance, is an imaginary history of Picasso’s childhood that includes a portrait of Picasso, and a feather that refers to the pigeons that Picasso drew as a child. Its deeper subject, however, has to do with the desire to make art. Minor is a more directly autobiographical painting, which also deals with reminiscences, this time of the artist’s illegal drinking as a teenager.

Drinking and its effects are a recurrent theme in Frye’s works. This is especially evident in Apparatus, a painting about quack cures for alcoholism, and in Hangover City, a folding screen that is the largest and most ambitious work in the exhibition. Hangover City epitomizes Frye’s characteristic buildup of materials and imagery and consists of three hinged sections—a kind of skyscraper tower made of stacked crates filled with painted objects and covered with “toy” building blocks and more paint, adjoined by two relief panels encrusted with faces, wine-bottle corks, and three inverted beer bottles.

Red Grooms’ Ruckus Manhattan, 1976, comes to mind, yet Frye’s view of the city not only substitutes a sense of decay and urban angst for Grooms’ witty irony, it depicts a subject engaged in a desperate struggle with what the artist calls a “bondage of personal addictions and self-abuse.” The candor with which this struggle surfaces in Frye’s work gives it its power.

Howard Risatti