January 7 – April 10, 2005 at Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach | by Daniella Walsh

To look at the sculptures and assemblages by John Frame is an encounter with a true individualist, the very thing an artist, ideally, has been and should be. “Enigma Variations: The Sculpture of John Frame 1980-2005,” a retrospective exhibition, shows an artistic evolution that spans Frame’s career as a self-taught sculptor/assemblagist who translates his innermost feelings into polished and craft-conscious, and yet still organic artisanship. From his rough-hewn beginnings, as exemplified in an assemblage of three figures bearing the symbols of a children’s game on their torsos (“To Hear the Siren’s Song and Live”), to recent works such as “As Water is in Water,” Frame has remained true to his aim to create emotionally honest and authentic work, independent of the dictates of trends and fashion. For more than twenty years he has created figurative pieces that eschew abstract and conceptualist developments, at times in the face of the derision from teachers and peers, but by staying true to his temperament and his passion has built a formidable body of work.Through his early studies of dance, theater and literature, he gained a breadth of knowledge and understanding of the foibles of mankind. This background is reflected in works like “Self Portrait: On the Narrow Sea,” which depicts three images of the artist’’s face, two seemingly suspended aboard a fishing vessel, and a third, smaller one either being raised from the water or descending into it in a contraption resembling a lobster pot. In this work, Frame appears to be saying, even though he is seeking answers, he’s far short of having found any. The show contains several self-portraits that could be interpreted as either a surfeit of self-absorption, or honest soul searching. The latter wins the day in works like “Trust,” a searing composition centered on a mutilated figure emerging from a tree as though it were an evil genie.However, works like “Living in Lightning” gain power, much like Medieval or Renaissance altarpieces, by Frame’s expression of a deep and honest spirituality. Some pieces, while alluding to Jesus Christ and the crucifixion, also convey an acceptance that suffering is an inescapable part of the human condition. Since his figures are more or less genderless, they gain universal appeal, giving viewers ample room for personal identification. Contorted poses, missing or skewed limbs, and loosely modeled facial features that subtly suggest emotion, all invite comparison to Stephen DeStaebler

Frame’s strength lies in his deft combinations of sculpture, found objects and items crafted to convey thoughts or create atmosphere. Even though many pieces appear rough-hew at first glance, he is also capable of stunning elegance and subtlety. “Sebastian Study” and “The Blind” are cases in point. “Sebastian Study” is comprised of a hand placed in a glass dome and pierced by a single arrow. By deliberately placing the arrow off center, he establishes the difference between the prototypical Saint and a lesser known human tortured for his vision. By placing the hand in an assemblage that is mechanistically styled, questions of blind faith and the limits of intellectual conviction are implicitly raised.Frame’s body of work, as selected by curator Gordon F. Fuglie, director of the Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University, suggests that by defying the art establishment early on, he has blazed a trail for younger artists fascinated with sources such as J.R.R. Tolkien and computer graphics that have taken detailed fantasy and figuration to new levels. Fuglie also suggests that Frame uses his crafted pieces to express himself, and selects found objects to connect with the viewer. His method of re-presenting and putting into a different context that which was lost or perhaps discarded is so seductive that you want to embrace Frame’’s avenues of communication.What makes this exhibition particularly noteworthy is that it shows none of the contrivance and preciousness that has often sinks contemporary assemblage to souvenir store levels. With its strong expressionist bent it combines the memory of what once was with the enticement of what is yet to come.

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