Psychedelic fairytales

Viola Frey’s massive ceramic sculptures turn NMA Underground into a fantasy land

A viewer at NMA Underground observes Viola Frey’s “Artist’s Mind/World View.”

A viewer at NMA Underground observes Viola Frey’s “Artist’s Mind/World View.”

Photo By David Robert

“I’ve never seen nothin’ like this before,” muses RN&R photographer David Robert as he stands gawking at Viola Frey’s giant ceramic statues. “Just when you think you’ve seen it all, it’s like, boom.

Nothing in our flesh and blood world, anyway. NMA Underground’s Larger Than Life exhibit looks like a fairytale unfolding, a psychedelic place where somber, sleeping giants come to life. And David, who is there shooting photos of the sculpture, sounds like he’s just read Alice in Wonderland for the first time.

“This looks like a bad acid trip,” he says, then amends his pronouncement. “Maybe not so bad. The colors are nice.”

An image etched deeply into my childhood consciousness had its birth in C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew. In this Chronicles of Narnia tale, two schoolchildren dive through a pool in a dark, silent wood and find themselves in other realities; one such world is filled with ancient ruins and illuminated by a huge, dying sun. Its denizens are rows and rows of giants who have been frozen for eons. And in the middle of the ruins is a gong that, if struck, will break the spell that has kept the giants immobile for so long.

How can we not tremble at the sight of a motionless giant? Frey’s works are magical and startling, twice the size of the average person and made from huge ceramic blocks with colorful, expressionistic glazes. Frey, who now teaches art in Oakland, Calif., was an influential artist in the Bay Area figurative movement. The larger-than-life ceramic pieces she produces today seem to have stepped directly through the door of a make-believe world, yet they are also charged with biting social commentary.

“She captures this image of man as a power figure in his suit, and woman as a power figure in the nude,” says Amy Oppio, NMA’s communication director.

With its two leviathan men and huge, Geo Metro-sized ceramic Earth, Frey’s “Artist’s Mind/World View” suggests that those of the masculine, well-suited variety are busy making a soccer-like sport out of our globe’s destiny—a cosmic game of earthball. The men stand poised, ready to kick the earth into a new, aimless orbit. But atop the noggins of the businessmen teeter the heads of young boys, perhaps a requiem for the child within—or in this case, the child above.

Frey also draws from religious iconography and the memorabilia of youth in many of her works. Her sculpture is rich with Buddha figures, Christ figures, cartoon characters and dolls, in addition to the recurring businessman and businesswoman motif. Frey uses vibrant, 1960s-inspired hues to adorn her work, creating a colorful, atypical pastiche of strangely familiar figures. Viewers may enter the exhibit space with a gasp and leave only after careful scrutiny of the works, but from that initial gasp to the examination of her method and message, Larger Than Life is enough to take one’s breath away.