An Individual First
The present work comes from a pivotal time in Viola Frey’s career—her first major acquisition, Double Grandmother by the Minneapolis Institute of Art occurred in 1981 and in 1984 she received a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Grandmother in Red Hat demonstrates her dynamic and expressive approach to engaging themes of social presence and individualism.
The use of Grandmothers in Frey’s work was inspired by the strong women in her community, as well as a figure she called “Mrs. National Geographic”. As a young girl, Frey copied pictures from the magazine and one woman always caught her eye— the editor or publisher she supposed, “the one that funded the whole thing, photographed riding an ostrich…she was out in the public, she wasn’t private.” This figure impressed upon the young Frey, and though not explicitly feminist, the sheer scale of Frey’s women gives them power. “She was the big-wig, the person who controlled it all, you could tell,” Frey said of Mrs. National Geographic, which is the same feeling one gets standing beneath the towering Grandmother.
While many of Frey’s figures are often scowling or blank, her Grandmothers radiate an enveloping benevolence. This warmth is heightened by Frey’s process; figures are built “from the ground up…like a seed.” Clothing is modeled after pieces found in thrift stores. Most works are made over the course of a year, both in and outdoors, in the changing light of seasons and moods. Though cartoonish and archetypal on the surface, each work contains a complex emotional resonance. Frey suggested that “a person is an individual first and couple[d], [they] have a tendency to destroy each other”. Much of Frey’s work, including Grandmother with Red Hat, deals with the question of how one chooses to participate in a community.