By Julia Price
July 24, 2020
He’s big, he’s orange. His suit is accented with a tie that’s too long, and his lips are pursed outward like a set of independent appendages.
No, it may not be who you’re thinking — instead he’s a highlight in Capsule Auction’s upcoming Modern Origins sale — Viola Frey’s 1989 ceramic sculpture, Blow Man. A riot of garish colors and standing at a towering 9’9”, Blow Man is at once overwhelming and humorous. He is exactly the type of work that Frey is best known for, enormous clay sculptures that she built in her high-ceilinged Oakland, California studio. Frey’s technique after building was to saw the figures into pieces, to glaze and fire those individually, and then rebuild for display.
Blow Man’s left arm is partially raised, close to the body, almost as though it had been extended and then quickly withdrawn. As his name suggests, his blue lips are puckered in a neat little “o” shape, as though blowing, whistling, or expressing surprise. Just like his face and his gestures, his suit begs to be acknowledged, covered in splotches of red, green, and orange, a handprint on the chest, and perched high up on his shoulders, the portraits of two women.
Far from mundane, Blow Man‘s presence is altered and amplified by color and size. He is patched together with his seams of reassembly visible, suggesting the presence of unconcealed originality and private emotion behind a public persona.
Viola Frey (1933-2004) lived and worked primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area. She studied under Robert Diebenkorn and Charles Fiske at the California College of Arts for her BFA, and with Mark Rothko, George Rickey, and Katherine Choy while attending graduate school at Tulane University. She later worked with Choy at the Clay Art Center in New York. Like her contemporaries Robert Arneson, Peter Voulkos, and Richard Shaw, she helped to push ceramics from the realm of decorative crafts to fine art, in a movement that was unquestionably Californian. While not overtly political, her work examined the interactions between power and gender, humans and their environment, and the surreal and the mundane. In addition to her massive ceramics, she also utilized bricolage, bronze, glass, oils and pastels.
Blow Man was originally exhibited at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in 1989, where it was purchased by the late Edward Bazinet, whose estate has consigned selections from the collection with Capsule Auctions.
Bazinet collected dramatic and monumental sculptures. Other works in the Modern Origins sale from the estate include Ways Around the Urschlamm (2010) by Michael Fliri, a vivid transformation from man to bull in eight wooden masks, and Oliviero Rainaldi’s Battesimi Umami (1998), a haunting, featureless human form made of plaster.