New York

Viola Frey

Nancy Hoffman Gallery

Subtle shifts in an artist’s oeuvre can be as easily missed as the movements of the hour hand across a clock’s surface; this is particularly the case with Viola Frey’s large-scale ceramic figures, which have evolved at a slow but steady pace since the late ’70s. Approximately one-and-a-half times bigger than the average viewer, Frey’s clunky effigies of middle-class Moms and Dads have an eerie presence: These towering zombies—hybrids of ceramic experimentation that combine Bay Area figuration, expressionistic brushwork, and a fauve palette—continue to evade esthetic categorization. Yet for all their idiosyncrasy, they have changed little in over a decade.

A departure for Frey, this new work is dominated by weighty, nude earth mothers. In Two Women and a World, 1990-91, in which a pair of monumental female nudes contemplates a brightly glazed ceramic globe, Frey offers a pleasant respite from centuries of vain, grunting Atlases. As always, the blank expressions on the faces of her figures are difficult to fathom, producing an ambiguity that leavens what might easily be mistaken for a trite, environmentalist message. In another figural group consisting of the trio Pink Lady and Weeping Woman, both 1990-91, and Falling Man in Suit, 1991, the figures display only as much personality as their titles suggest. Frey’s usually stalwart male has fallen backward, looking confused in the presence of his calmer female counterparts. These two groups suggest that the balance of power in Frey’s world of giants is shifting—her women, freed of their June Cleaver personas, are silently taking control.

In two comparatively smaller figure groupings, each tightly clustered on a pedestal, Frey’s signature suburban figures mingle with replicas of dime-store tchatchkes. Ranging from anonymous lawn jockeys to the Venus de Milo, Frey’s remade kitsch figurines are not—as they would be in the hands of Jeff Koons—ironically finessed and elevated to high-art status; instead they come off as exorcized childhood dream fragments.

Thirteen pastel-and-charcoal drawings constitute the most dynamic component of this show. In these full-fledged nightmares, the same restless figures interact but in a more animated manner than in the sculptures. These drawings are actually studio scenes in which props and models take on a life of their own, and the artist occasionally includes her face peering voyeuristically through a small window. Like the paintings of David Salle, Frey’s drawings pastiche disparate, overlapping visual elements; yet unlike the hip, calculatedly accidental look of the former artist’s work, Frey’s drawings are fresh and spontaneous. Unfortunately, only a fraction of this dynamism translates into the ceramic pieces.

Frey’s oeuvre, although characterized by obsessive repetition, is revealed in this show to be less static than it seems at first glance. Yet despite recent and welcome developments, it still feels as if the artist is almost stubbornly holding something back—letting her frenetically surrealistic vision seep out only a little bit at a time. So far, it has been worth the wait.

Jenifer P. Borum