Towering over viewers at an astonishing 107 inches, Viola Frey's Lady in Blue and Yellow Dress commands your attention.
Currently on view at the Renwick Gallery, Lady in Blue and Yellow Dress exemplifies what made Frey—who died in 2004 at the age of 70—unique as an artist. She was a classic artist who worked in many mediums—painting, drawing, bronze and photography—but she is best known for her monumental scale ceramic sculptures. "They're tour de force in the field of ceramics," says Fern Bleckner, the Renwick Gallery's deputy chief for operations.
Frey studied at the California College of the Arts in Oakland with the abstract expressionist artist Richard Diebenkorn, who had a major influence on her work. As an adult she would frequent flea markets—a trait she picked up as a child from her family—and collect random objects such as Japanese porcelain figurines. "She combed the Alameda flea market looking for things that spoke to her," said Bleckner. "This very much was an integral part of her working process." Frey deliberately reconfigured these diminutive objects and "giganticized" (her word) them up into a sculpture that depicted an archetypal "Every man" or "Every woman." In her large pieces, Frey frequently explored the themes of control and power.
"She's thinking of people and their place in time and history and their culture," says Bleckner. "She's looking at the average every day man in our time and how he fits in and what does it mean for the individual."
While Frey may have been trying to capture ordinary people living their lives, there are noticeable instances where Frey chose to let her artistic expression run wild. For instance, one hand is larger than the other in Lady in Blue and Yellow Dress. According to Bleckner, this exaggeration was deliberate and is a reference to historic sculptures. It's an indication of showing power. The face is also not structured like a normal face. "It is more cubist in its depiction," said Bleckner.
With monumental scale, exaggerated features, a forward leaning stance, and a free form spontaneous painting technique, Frey's work has the uncanny ability to turn the viewer into the figurine. To learn more about Frey and her work stop by the Renwick Gallery February 16 at 12 p.m. for a free gallery talk led by Bleckner.
Updated: This post was updated to include some additional information from curator Fern Bleckner.