IN the history of art, enormous size has been traditionally reserved for sculptures of gods, royalty, and personages of symbolic or sacred significance. Further, the material of choice for this sort of enduring art has been something sturdy like bronze or marble. Northern California artist Viola Frey plays havoc with those expectations and traditions. Frey uses the material reserved for tiny, currio shelf figurines - shiny glass ceramic - to sculpt monumental, lumbering figures some 10 feet tall.
Frey wants her massive figures to tap into the millenia-long tradition of grand-scale sculpture from Egyptian pharaoh effigies to huge Buddhas, but from a position of irony and contrast. Her huge figures are not deities, but middle-American Everyfolks - benign, enormous grandmas wearing tipsy bonnets and lonely smiles, or job-stressed businessmen like the looming 10-foot bureaucrat titled "Mean Man."
The success of Frey's odd art involves a bit of a collision between those qualities we associate with enormous scale - political, religious, or sheer physical power - and the very human, very contemporary vulnerability she subtly works into her glass giants. The men look fettered and bound rather than adorned by their fancy business suits, the dressed-up women often raise their hands to their mouths in indecision or dismay. Though they are often installed and exhibited as groups arranged to face or gest u
re toward one another, each figure stares out blankly, completely disengaged.
The style Frey employs - a cross between caricature and rough expressionism - makes her people transmit a certain silliness as well. We can almost envision the figures as modern-day tobacco-store Indians adorning America's ubiquitous malls. However, after some time spent in an exhibition space with one or more of the lumbering characters, we start to feel ill at ease. Frey banks on our discomfort and unfamiliarity with this enormous scale and on the intuitive link between size and might. We feel physic a
lly and emotionally pressed upon by these big, silly creatures, as if in the snare of the IRS auditor.
Though they look like fun-loving sculptures, Frey is dead serious about what she wants to accomplish. The huge figures have the effect of shrinking us and the surrounding architecture in a way that we are not used to. The works force us to notice something generally taken for granted: that our own human scale is relative rather than absolute, that there are implied power relationships transmitted through size, and that we are taken off of our center when these familiar "givens" are disrupted.
Why bother? According to the artist, as we interact with these tenuous yet massive personages and watch them and ourselves swing between feelings of potence and impotence, we experience what it means to be human: to continually change, adjust, and readjust perceptions. Like the enlightening drink of tonic in "Alice Through the Looking Glass," Frey's artworks help us shrink, reaccommodate, and ultimately recover with some added insight about how we view ourselves and the world.
This series showcases artists at work. Each essay is succinct, introductory, and captures art in motion before labels are applied.