P.K.Frizzell

Polly Frizzell: Transit and Transcendence by Dewitt Cheng

    The dichotomy between body and soul in traditional philosophy and religion continues, even in the rational age of scientific materialism. Magic and mystery and hunger for transcendence persist in the human psyche, not to be denied. Analogous to this split between mortal body and immortal soul is contemporary art's schism between style and content, arising from modernist experimentation and the rejection of the traditional beliefs of earlier art, religious and mythological claptrap serving the social order. (Does this sound familiar in 2016?) The exaltation of style and the alienation of modern artists from society have however, a downside. Too much art today seems made of, by, and for an elite art world, and is thus irrelevant to most people. Leo Tolstoy complained about this abandonment of the psychological moorings of traditional religion in the late nineteenth century, in What is Art? Today, after a century-plus of modernism and postmodernism, the art world indulges in its own brand of magical thinking, assuming that anything can be transmuted into art, and will be recognized as such, someday, so we automatically give the benefit of the doubt—who are we to judge?— to a lot of truly doubtful work. To reverse the old cliche, we know about art, but we don't know what we like—until tastemakers anoint it, that is. Artists, historically, have not been so complacent or diffident: Ben Shahn said, in the 1930s. that style is the form of content, i.e., its optimal realization; art's form, by this thinking, is not animated or justified by verbal meanings or interpretations, but a poetic living thing born of the imagination.

    The Berkeley artist Polly Frizzell employs contemporary media to explore the fundamental questions of art and life, Tolstoy's core issues, through a body of work encompassing paintings, sculpture, installation and video. "Art," she writes, "allows us to see directly out of another's eyes," reiterating art's paradoxical duality as both intensely personal and potentially universal. As a student at Berkeley in the 1960s, Frizzell was drawn to the ceramic sculpture of Peter Voulkos marrying the materiality of clay with Abstract Expressionist gesture and passion. Her attraction to "the ‘worthless’...inner-city decay, dive bars, places that have been formed by catastrophe" aligns her with the Dadaist collages and environments of Kurt Schwitters and the hybrid assemblages of stylistic descendants like Bruce Conner, Ed Kienholz and Robert Rauschenberg. in her video, Moments of Grace, and her video installation, Deluge, Frizzell juxtaposes various unidentifiable objects and materials and uses them as the screen upon which she projects dancing figures that descend slowly and lyrically—in the former, accompanied by ecclesiastical-sounding choral music. These videos represent "our material and intangible selves. We are the conjunction of our material bodies, which consist of ‘trash’: water, viruses, bacteria, a few inexpensive chemicals, etc. The ‘nothing’ part of us is the magnificent part, which can't be touched or held: love, inspiration, transcendence, creativity, compassion, etc." Dino Buzzati's poignant short story, "The Falling Girl," tracing the slow and dreamy fall of a young woman from a skyscraper, past window after window, and aging as she descends, has a similar lyrical melancholy.

    Frizzell’s mixed-media Shadow Series paintings explore the dark absence of light as both human projection, three dimensions collapsed into two, and as a lingering human trace (as in the ghostly figures created by the fireball at Hiroshima). Frizzell: "The shadow is my way of exploring our invisible, intangible selves because the shadow is nothing, not even light, yet it is evidence of something... I like the way the shadows appear to be inside the glass and create and object somewhere between 2 and 3 dimensions. I like that glass appears to be solid but is actually a liquid" (rather like our too, too solid flesh melting and resolving itself into an amorphous dew?). Frizzell's heavily worked, ‘brutalized’ surfaces, with their suggestions of fire and flood, age and decay, have a compelling abstract beauty, but also a history. Layered atop these contested battlegrounds, and providing a psychological counterpoint (as well as a viewer surrogate), float the spectral photographic shadows of human figures, anthropomorphic vessels, birds and dogs. Every landscape, could we see into time, is a drama-haunted stage. Frizzell combines Abstract Expressionist drama, or, rather its frozen traces, with intimations of past, present and future, the temporal states of matter, dark projections of bodies in motion, arrested and transformed into art.

-- Dewitt Cheng