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Colossi, Both Kitschy and Compelling

February 17, 2010

Joshua Bright for The New York Times

A security guard is dwarfed by “Fire Suit,” right, part of “Bigger, Better, More: The Art of Viola Frey,” on view at the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan. Another exhibition of Frey’s work is at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in Chelsea.

Viola Frey’s giant ceramic sculptures of men and women are among the underappreciated wonders of late-20th-century art. Rising 11 feet and higher, wearing business suits and ties and nondescript dresses, they have a spookily imposing physical presence and a clunky, cartoonish ugliness.

Roughly glazed in strident colors and made in sections that fit together like blocks in a stone wall, they could be mistaken for a species of Outsider art. Because of their size and their blank or seemingly angry expressions, they may remind you of what it was like to be a child among grown-ups troubled by incomprehensible problems.

Frey, who died in 2004 at the age of 70, is the subject of “Bigger, Better, More: The Art of Viola Frey,” an exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design that was organized by the Racine Art Museum in Wisconsin and the Gardiner Museum in Toronto.

Unfortunately the badly misconceived, claustrophobic installation undermines the power of the sculptures. The larger ones are backed up against walls and into corners, so you can’t walk around them as you should. And the biggest and best works are displayed in a row, like suspects in a police lineup, in the distractingly busy area outside the second-floor elevators. Frey’s looming colossi need a lot more breathing room.

Read more at: Colossi, Both Kitschy and Compelling

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