This essay appears in the catalog Philip Frey: New Works for an exhibition at Maine Art Shows, June 27-July 16, 2015.
Philip Frey: Lavish Attention
The respect for and service to the viewer is, perhaps, one the best attributes of Frey’s paintings. “I am a student of aesthetics: the study of beauty,” he writes. “I paint what is interesting and beautiful to me.” What is beautiful to Frey is the Maine landscape and the people who live in it. The view in Deep Waters captures the striking natural beauty of mountains pouring into lakes. Double Cannon Ball speaks to the joy and excitement of seaside summer fun. Gestural and expressive use of paint conveys a sense of immediacy—a nowness—to Frey’s work that helps bring the viewer into the moment. There is no agenda here, no greater purpose, than to share a love for the world and a deep sense of place.
Art history is full of examples where paintings defined a nation or rebuilt a country’s identity in the face of defeat. The history of painting is littered with patriotic propaganda, religious liturgy, and moral lecture, but only in the last 150 years have artists been interested or able to step away from a political master and truly serve the viewer.
In the wake of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, Claude Monet found himself back in his hometown of Le Havre making a series of paintings of the city’s busy port. Monet had spent the war in England studying with John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, both of whom deeply influenced his work. France was abuzz with patriotic renewal in the face of a humiliating defeat by the Germans and artists were quick at work attempting to reestablish the glory of France. Painters like Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville were busy rendering scenes from the war. Neuville’s Les Dernières Cartouches shows French snipers ambushing Bavarian troops in Bazeilles before the Battle of Sedan. Jean-Léon Gérôme was painting Pollice Verso, a moral allegory set in ancient Rome. It was around this time William-Adolphe Bouguereau painted the erotically charged Nymphs & Satyr. French painting was academic, politically charged, and intent on reclaiming France’s pride. Monet was none of these things.
In Le Havre, Monet worked on a series of paintings of the port. Impression, Sunrise was painted from his hotel room overlooking the bay. Monet worked from a base of gray, relying on subtle shifts in tone to distinguish the water from the sky, and quick, almost rudimentary marks to draw the cranes in the background and two small boats in the foreground. Dots, dashes, and squiggles make up most of the piece. The painting is a wash of understatedness except for the salmon-orange sun and a bevy of equally brilliant strokes that capture its reflection on the water. Peter Gay in his book, Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, describes the painting, “Altogether truly an impression, a highly accomplished impression, looking far more casual a piece than it really was. A characteristic specimen of the new painting, it tells no stories and offers no lessons; it does not aim at making its viewers more devout, more moral, more patriotic, or for that matter, more sexually aroused.”
In contemporary terms, such non-objective art is usually reserved for abstract painting, where the lack of representation suggests an emotional or aesthetic exploration on the part of the artist. Increasingly, as we move into the 21st century, we see painters, like Frey, incorporating the lessons of abstract art into representational works. We see this in paintings like Convergence that are small, immediate, and relatively free of details. Frey breaks down the scene in Convergence into its basic elements: a blue underpainting, a wide stroke of yellow for the sun, a softer stroke below the sun for its reflection on the water; a dozen or so marks of green, a few strokes of white for clouds. It is casual and free and yet completely conveys the breathtaking view one gets when looking out at an island across the water. Convergence is what you feel when you remember the view.
“My work begins with a feeling—a connection to my everyday experience: evocative colors; unexpected patterns of light or the sublime quality of ordinary objects,” writes Frey. “From that feeling, I build a colorful and painterly world in response to it.”
Monet was working against a backdrop of patriotic fervor; Frey is working in a different context. Never in its history has so much art been so removed from people’s lives. Much of contemporary art demonstrates a contempt for the viewer, an unabashed lack of concern. One has only to take a brief tour of art fairs in Miami, New York, or Basel, to see a parade of narcissism, mundanity, and disdain that too often alienates everyday people from art. Frey is a refreshing counterbalance to contemporary art that is driven by concept and executed only to the point where the point is made. In contrast to this other work, Frey cradles the viewer, takes them by the hand, and walks them to a majestic view.
This approach to painting comes from our Impressionist forefathers. “Impressionist painters were carrying out Baudelaire’s influential agenda to lavish all of their attention on the present in which they lived and to which they responded,” explained Gay. And while Frey is not an Impressionist, the Impressionist spirit lives on in his work. He not only lavishes his attention on the present, he invites us to do the same, to join the boy jumping into the water in Dive, to take a walk in the woods in Forest Floor, to stroll the boardwalk in In the Moment, and enjoy the vibrant, colorful symphony of life in Pier Patterns. This is how Frey respects and serves the viewer.