Urs Frei

Stalagtites, stalagmites, and a hodgepodge of nearly nauseating, shabby wall objects explode here in Urs Frei’s work. Frei has been making his presence felt throughout Switzerland over the past months with large, virulently energetic groups of works. Distancing himself from the unified presentation of his sewn, tied, and painted pillows, which, he ironically comments, only recently suggest that “he’s found himself,” he now confronts us with an an anarchy familiar from earlier phases of his work. In their re-presentation, the works contain unexpected potential. The disparate jumble turns out, on closer inspection, to be a self-contained whole of carefully selected individual pieces, themselves composed of precisely calibrated elements.

The objects are agglomerations of mass-consumer goods from the do-it-yourself store as well as throwaway materials from the artist’s own household. They are meaningful on a purely personal level only, if at all. Some boards, for instance, have been recycled from former picture panels; colorful plastic tubs come from an outdoor installation; and earlier sack-objects reappear as filled, bundled or slit-open sacks. Otherwise there is no hint of historical significance, objet-trouvé romanticism, garbage-pit exoticism, or outsider eroticism in the materials used. This is not the work of an ethnographer but of a diligent bureaucrat. Frugal as a camel in the desert, Frei makes use of whatever lies directly in his path. Rather than working with untreated materials, as he did before 1983, he has covered almost all of these pieces in enamel paint.

The diversity of his work has nothing to do with visual arbitrariness. “I have,” he says, “a very strict notion of what a good work of art is.” At the same time, he tries to avoid the rigidity of a party program. He tries to direct the viewer’s attention away from the virtual character of an abstract work and toward its physical presence, the vibrancy of its color, texture, and structure. And he achieves this by using materials and colors that in their banality and unspectacular nature demand our full attention in order to be perceived at all. The thick layer of enamel paint on his objects jumps out right away as a heavy-handed camouflage, thereby making clear the illusory purism of raw materials. He avoids, in this way, the pathos of Yves Klein’s pigment-soaked sponges, as well as the floating-sphere quality of Cy Twombly’s sculptures. He makes objects the way other artists make drawings, as one-to-one translations of visual impressions, ideas, or catalytic relationships among colors and formal qualities. Especially in a country that has tabulated every square meter of its space and cherishes its tradition of precision craftsmanship over the extrusion of raw materials, Frei’s torrent of recycled products, his refusal to master production processes, his Calvinist industriousness, and his investment of time in nonutilitarian projects have a particularly provocative effect. Like many of his Swiss contemporaries, he claims for himself the autonomy of the amateur within a high-tech environment. His flood of objects circumscribes an esthetic that takes on firm contours only to be cast aside the very next moment. One becomes conscious of the necessity for establishing esthetic criteria and making decisions, and at the same time of the arbitrariness, the temporally and geographically limited validity of these decisions. Sooner or later, the objects will disintegrate again, either due to external circumstances or because Frei himself will recycle them into new works. Underlying this process is a notion of culture and esthetics as a continually evolving, living organism that demands constant intellectual vigilance and perceptual sensitivity, and that can only be kept alive by uninterrupted energy transfusions between artist, work, and viewer. Seen in this light, Frei’s refusal to take a fixed position, to limit the choice of objects, to lend them more permanence, is a highly effective survival strategy.

Claudia Jolles

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.