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Their Lives Poured Into Clay

A husband-and-wife team's wide-ranging experiences--including illness--are reflected in their noted ceramics.

November 19, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Michael and Magdalena Frimkess occupy a unique place in the history of American ceramics. Married in life and in art, they have created an improbable body of work that wraps Michael's classical clay forms in Magdalena's contemporary narrative painting. Imagine a perfectly symmetrical, Greek-style bowl glazed with images of Snoopy the World War I flying ace and you have an idea of what these artists are up to.

In their first major exhibition since 1982--at Louis Stern Fine Arts in West Hollywood--46 stoneware jars, vases, bowls and teapots are decorated with everything from cartoon characters to palm trees, fast food, Bible story illustrations, Chinese dragons, and images of the artists' friends and family. Titled "Vessels of Satire," the show gives new meaning to the popular concept of a melting pot.

Walking around "Little Pleasures," a large pot glazed in blue and brown tones, one discovers a Japanese geisha cavorting with Popeye and Olive Oyl next to a cheerful view of the ocean and a "Welcome to Edwards Air Force Base" sign. A traditional teapot has an image of Betty Boop on one side and Popeye on the other. A tall, Chinese-style vase, called "Year of the Horse," is decorated with a Western carousel. Among other surprises, Frankenstein looms large on a small lidded jar, while dozens of animals peer out of arched windows on a bottle-like piece inspired by Noah's ark.

What does it all mean?

"I don't know. I just paint," says Magdalena, in an interview at the Frimkesses' studio in Venice.

"She's amazing. She doesn't know what she's going to do even after she loads the brush," says Michael, who throws paper-thin pots on an electric wheel, then hands them over to his wife.

When pressed, Magdalena says the ideas "just come" in the course of her daily activities. She gathers images unconsciously, but they bubble up in artworks that compose a sort of diary of "where I go, what I see, what I do and how I feel."

One pot has special meaning for her, however. Called "Ma Familia," it's an 18-inch-tall jar that portrays members of her family, including her Chilean-born son and daughter from a previous relationship who live in Los Angeles. Unlike more typical Frimkess creations, in which stream-of-consciousness narratives wrap formal pottery in multicolored crazy quilts, this piece features solid black silhouettes lined up on unglazed stoneware.

"I spent a lot of time on that one, trying to copy the Greeks," she says, referring to black-figured Greek pottery, made in the middle of the BC 5th century. The style of "Ma Familia" also reminds her of cloisonne, a porcelain enamel technique in which areas of color are separated by metal wire.

Things are often more complicated than they appear in the work of Michael and Magdalena Frimkess. Known for a funky mix of high art and popular culture, the artists say their trademark social commentary includes bittersweet observations about the difficulties of achieving harmony amid ethnic and political diversity.

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They have arrived at this aesthetic position naturally, but not easily. While their work mirrors life in a mixed-up world, it also reflects their experience with personal challenges and physical adversity.

And therein lies a convoluted story.

Michael, 63, has battled multiple sclerosis for nearly half his life. A native of Los Angeles, he grew up in Boyle Heights and graduated from Hollywood High School. His father was an artist who made a living in graphic design, and both he and his wife encouraged their son's artistic proclivities.

A bright child who excelled both in music and visual art, Michael played piano and saxophone, and developed his talent for drawing and sculpture. At 17, he won a scholarship at what would later become known as Otis College of Art and Design, just as Peter Voulkos and his soon-to-be-famous students were transforming ceramics from a traditional utilitarian craft to a muscular, expressive art form--the clay equivalent of Abstract Expressionist painting.

Frimkess was younger than the adventurous clay workers, most of whom had returned to school after military service, and he had no interest in their artistic revolution. "I looked down on ceramics," he says. And, as he tells the story, his disdain was repaid with vandalism. On several occasions, large-scale figurative sculptures he was working on in an adjacent classroom were purposely damaged.

He attributes his conversion to a peyote trip. In 1956, during a period when he had dropped out of Otis and was trying to find his own direction in art and music, he took the advice of a fellow musician who used peyote. Frimkess swallowed what may have been an overdose of the drug.

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