MaDora Frey,Venus’s Looking Glass, 2020 at The Atlanta Contemporary in the exhibition She is Here, 2020 photo: Amber Bernard
with Deanna Sirlin
MaDora Frey,Venus’s Looking Glass, 2020, Mirror, 6 tons of local-quarried granite (approximately 50 million years old), dichroic film, fluorescent grow lights, dogwood ,125 x 125 x 40"
I met MaDora Frey in the best possible way to meet another artist: we met at the opening of an exhibition by a mutual friend, an artist whose work we both admire and support. Recently, I had written about a Frey’s work in a review for another publication of the exhibition She is Here at The Contemporary in Atlanta. This was the first time I saw her work and I was interested in all of its components: gravel, transparency, and light. In the review, I wrote, Venus’ Looking Glass (2020) “is an intensely hued homage to the seminal land artist Robert Smithson (1938–1973). Frey’s work brings a new twist to Smithson’s legacy by adding intense color to the mix.” Frey stated in our conversation that she is really not that interested in Smithson, a bold statement that I relish and consider in thinking about this artist’s work. Frey recently had a solo exhibition in Atlanta at Georgia State University, curated by Cynthia Farnell, but because of the pandemic I only know this work from images. In this exhibition, Stargaze, Frey uses gravel, mirrors and a projected video of the sky.
It is interesting that these recent works of Frey’s are all located inside gallery spaces but have the viewers enter into a kind of meditation to achieve a new viewpoint on nature. Frey brings the natural world inside and reimagines the gallery space with color, light, and movement; the video, which is reflected in the work is a time lapse of the sky projected both on the wall and at the two mirrored opened cubes on the floor. The result is a kind of transcendental vision with a twist of the industrial and manmade merged with nature.
MaDora Frey, Untitled 1 (Wander), 2020, Metal mesh fabric, memory foam, fluorescent grow light, steel, mirror, granite
DS: Has your work or way of work changed in the last seven months as a result of the pandemic?
MF: Most recently, I've focused on my immediate surroundings. I lost access to my studio for several months and began working outdoors again. It feels most right to have my life embedded in the work, something that I didn't find in just making paintings. My practice was very isolated with respect to all the other things I do and have done in my life.
DS: Can you tell us about your choice of using light in your work? How do you see this element functioning?
MF: It's really the abstract qualities that appeal to me, especially the association light has with spirituality. It is the thing that so many painters chase. There is a duality of origins, belonging to both the natural and industrial world. What it represents in each work is fluid and never fixed. With my indoor works, which are ruminations of experiences I've had in the landscape, sometimes it is a stand-in for the beauty of and what makes up the Sky. Other times, I use grow lights to help keep plants alive, referencing the nurturing, fertile aspects of landscape.
MaDora Frey, Untitled 1 (Wander)(detail) 2020, Metal mesh fabric, memory foam, fluorescent grow light, steel, mirror, granite
DS: Can you talk about the materials you use in your work?
MF: A commission with the Katonah Museum of Art in NY was the catalyst for working outside, and using rock. They approached me about creating a site-specific outdoor piece that would be up for four months in response to the Museum's architecture and grounds. At the time, I was mostly making sculptural wall works using mirrors and liquid graphite. The lead-time was only 8 weeks, so I reacted intuitively. To my initial disappointment, I was given the gravel-filled parking lot as the site. I quickly realized by using gravel expanded the work to a larger scale by incorporating the lot. The granite also resonated with me because growing up on an inactive quarry meant there were abandoned piles of gravel scattered about the property.
MaDora Frey, Exo #6250, 2016, Katonah Museum of Art. Acrylic mirror, LED lights, UV ink, marine plywood, local gravel 240 x 82 x 144"
DS: What significance do artists such as Smithson, Nancy Holt, Richard Long, Andy Goldsworthy and Michael Heizer have for you? As a woman artist using the language of the male dominated Land Art Movement of the seventies, what is your motivation for creating works that give a nod to Robert Smithson?
MF: I admire those artists and how they operated outside of the traditional gallery system, though they are highly collectible today. Even though many cultures through the ages have created shrines, temples, earthworks, and geoglyphs, the Land Artists of the 70s were responsible for naming it as a contemporary art movement and beginning a new dialog. The idea of making something that someone may never see, other than a photograph as documentation, is quite powerful and underscores that they were working outside of the commercial art gallery model. I have employed this in my work, and with it comes a lot of freedom. Working in ephemeral modes, you don't have the logistical problem solving of making something stick together forever.
Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels, 1973-76, resonate with me particularly. She had the same urges that North America's indigenous people did to remain in tune with the heavens. They sited and built earthworks according to a complex cosmology to which mounds aligned with astronomical events. In this, there is a reminder that there are forces greater than us, something I explore in my work, especially in my installation, Venus's Looking Glass at the Atlanta Contemporary right now. I also admire the work of Agnes Denes', whose work I was not familiar with until her recent retrospective at the Shed in New York City. Denes' Wheatfield - A Confrontation in South Manhattan kind of blew my mind. I love that her work embodies this idea of the feminine being nurturing or generative.
MeDora Frey, Sky Mirror Box Outside, 2020, Fluorescent grow lights, mirror, 6 tons of local granite (approximately 50 million years old), Dichroic film, 125 x 125 x 40”
As far as Robert Smithson, I can understand why you may think of him as an influence when looking at some of my work, but I don't think about him in my practice. The instinct to stack rocks, arrange them and pile up earth is as old as Stonehenge. Historically, reflective materials represented portals to another dimension, especially in the Mesoamerican cultures. Using these materials gives the work a sense that looks like it could be from the distant past or far away future.
I really see my work as a departure from landscape painting. Early on, I explored themes of the female figure in landscape. Feeling frustrated by the limitations, I began working more abstractly, employing automatic drawing and painting techniques, searching for a way to convey my connection to a place. The work became more physical. Instead of using brushes, I used my arms, hands, and liquid graphite. I added mirrors and light, which created symmetry and luminous illusionistic spaces that speak of spirituality. The result is otherworldly and a metaphor for my wonderment and longing for both the natural and industrial spaces.
Working outdoors as a female artist does present some different demands on me. I don't have the luxury of hiking or making work outside alone. Taking someone with me is essential. It also needs to be the kind of person who can entertain themselves and not think we are there to socialize too much. My partner and friends who go along take photographs or make drawings and watercolors. Those people make good art-outing companions. Also, because of my size, I tend towards materials I can manage by myself, though I have employed assistants for larger projects recently.
MaDora Frey, Yucca Filamentosa, 2020 (photographic documentation)
DS: I know you recently went to the Southwest. Did you find the landscape there inspiring? How do you think it will influence your work in the studio?
MF: Landscape and nature make me feel connected to myself. The landscape feels familiar in how intense the sun is, , much like in the South. Dad's side of the family is from there, which adds another layer for me. The scrabbly landscape of the mountains makes for an appropriate setting for their stories of hard life and surviving the depression. Also, Sedona was my home for some summers growing up and later in college. When I wasn't working, I was swimming, hiking and looking for vortexes. I'm not carrying crystals out on hikes with me anymore, but the power of the Earth can certainly be felt and witnessed there. While there, I found myself using mirror and experimenting with colored glass, which adds a feminine, euphoric glaze. The mirrors layer and fracture the image with multiple perspectives. It's a way of saturating the image, allowing the viewer to more fully experience the place.
MaDora Frey is a cross-disciplinary artist, originally from Georgia, and is part of the artist studio program at The Contemporary in Atlanta, Georgia.
Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of Atlanta, Georgia. She is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.