Unforbidden fruit

Joanna Frueh: A Retrospective

There are photos, books, clothing and a video in Joanna Frueh’s art exhibit, but her specialty is erasing the boundary between her art and her life.

There are photos, books, clothing and a video in Joanna Frueh’s art exhibit, but her specialty is erasing the boundary between her art and her life.

Photo By David Robert

“I’m a trailblazer.”

“I always go my way.”

“I’m sexy.”

“I’m smart.”

“I’m original.”

These are things Joanna Frueh says over lunch. Slender and elegant, vivacious and expressive, sporting Bettie Page hair at 57, she projects a level of self-assurance I’ve never seen before. She is warm but direct. She makes it her business to keep her guard down.

Joanna Frueh: A Retrospective, at the University of Nevada, Reno’s Sheppard Gallery, is a look at the artist/actress/UNR art history professor’s career so far. The exhibit is a visually tidy arrangement of self portraits—many nude, some in skin-colored frames—costumes hanging on hangers matched with photos of Frueh wearing them, and a video projection of a performance. Behind the video screen, there’s a reading area with chairs and some of her published books, including theoretical texts on beauty.

Neatly curated, sparsely arranged, the art on the wall (and the screen) doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Usually a retrospective exhibit is a representative sampling of an artist’s career to date. Since a lot of Frueh’s work—much of it based in performance—is intangible, this retrospective works differently. It’s more like a documentary peek into her life.

The borders between art and her life, between her work and her self, are not just blurred, but erased.

“How much difference is there between art and life?” I ask her.

“There isn’t.”

If Frueh’s work and life are one and the same, only she has the full story. For the rest of us, the whole package is arranged so that we might look in on any level, superficial or analytical.

“I write about the body, beauty, the erotic, sex,” she says. Not topics we all pursue from a scholarly perspective, but nonetheless, topics with something for everyone.

Your reading of Frueh’s work will depend on what you’re interested in. Your level of familiarity with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for example, will either color or not color your interpretation of the saucy, Edenic, large-scale self-portrait, “My Rossetti,” which is based on the pre-Raphaelite poet and painter’s work. Having seen the work of 20th-century photographers like Cyndi Sherman and Nan Golden will give the portraiture styles of the series “Infinite Aphrodite” a familiar ring. If you’re into contemporary theoretical writing on beauty and sexuality, you’ll have another vantage point. If you know the work of performance artist and persona creator/user Eleanor Antin, you’ve seen artists make self-creation their mediums. And whether you consider Frueh’s sexy poses original or not may have to do with whether you’re looking at them as nude pictures or as nude pictures of someone making art within the confines of academia. Someone who’s over 50.

Frueh rejects terms like “you look good for your age,” but therein lies the key to what is “trailblazing,” about her photos. We’ve seen sexy photos before, and recent photo history has plenty of examples of nude portraits of women in their 50s, but you don’t see that many women in their 50s presenting themselves as desirous in their own work. She tells me distinctions about age—specifically, who’s too old to be hot, who’s too old to strike a sex-kitten pose in a photo—don’t matter.

“My work is me," she says. "And it’s me doing my best to be real."