Editor’s Note: Some of the artwork below is NSFW.
The magic of a painting often reveals itself in an instant, seizing your whole mind in a flash. That’s the power present in the artwork we find moving. This same ineffable quality that grabs hold of your full attention and demands that you consider the work is present in the work of painter Rose Freymuth-Frazier.
She paints women, rendered with the loving devotion and lush oily colors of the Old Masters. But their presentation is as provocative as the most captivating work you’d find in a Lowbrow/New Contemporary group show. Perhaps the best word to describe the 38-year-old’s work is arresting. And once she captures your attention she frees your imagination to connect with symbols and winking visual critiques of modern life.
The most relevant art magazine these days, Hi Fructose, describes Freymuth-Frazier’s artwork with velveteen prose:
The soft, supple women in her works often stare out from the canvas with confrontational gazes, as if reproaching us for tracing their ample curves with our eyes. Freymuth-Frazier’s work lives within this tension, casting a dark shadow on eroticism as a site for all sorts of anxieties and hang-ups instead of a pure expression of love.
We sat down with Freymuth-Frazier to discuss her work, her worldview and the very singular place she’s made for herself in today’s highly-competitive art world. Candid and questioning, she explained how she’s inspired by dreams of harems and motorcycles, statues of hermaphrodites and Internet porn like “2 Girls, 1 Cup.” She also opened up about her acting stint on MTV, reflected on the delicate meaning she finds in the vibrancy of Harlem and the inspiring joy of watching New York women walk their dogs, and how it all applies to her paintings.
You were born and raised in Northern California. That’s a very specific place in the world. How did growing up in Nevada City shape your view of the world?
That’s true. Nevada City is a really funny and specific place. The people who settled there in the 1970s–my parent’s generation–were a very funny and specific kind of people. We all ran around naked most of the time and didn’t go to public school all that often. Much like during the Gold Rush, they had a slightly lawless, renegade independence, a DYI ethic and rejection of mainstream American culture. What I took away from my upbringing in Nevada City was the sense of being an outsider and that I could do things my way and not necessarily have to fit into or follow a traditional path, i.e., work for a corporation, get married, have kids, etcetera.
You live and paint in New York City. Which is a radical shift. What about NYC do you respond to?
New York City definitely is a harsher place for me to live than California, but it’s the kind of place that offers the right combination of inspiration and pain and suffering to keep me stimulated and painting. My worldview is informed by the streets of the city as much as its museums. On the way to visit The Unicorn Tapestries and a totally perverted tarot card exhibit by 16th century German architect and printmaker Peter Flötner at The Cloisters, I’ll cross paths with women who might inspire future paintings, women with dyed red hair, spandex, faux fur, out with their pit bulls for a stroll. So, in spite of the difficulties of living in New York City, the grind is counterbalanced by the great and inspiring works of art and people that keep me foolishly tripping over myself to get to the canvas each day.
The women you paint have attitude and undiminished poise. Is this conscious messaging, or is it a result of your own self-esteem and respect for women, in general?
‘Undiminished poise.’ I like that. I’m interested in a contemporary interpretation of feminine archetypes and characters, Eve, the virgin, the centerfold, the mother, the stripper, the caregiver, the badass. But ultimately I’m drawn to one kind of feminine expression of beauty or another. Actually, I blame it on Playboy. I’m not kidding! When I was little, one side of my family would gather for Thanksgiving. I was the youngest kid, little and shy and bored. One year I discovered a stack of Playboy in the guest bathroom. They were fascinating! All those pretty, pretty ladies. Of course the sexuality was lost on me, but I knew there was something powerful in those pages. That’s how I perceived it, and that’s what I took into my work as an adult, the power of the female form.
Traveling down that same road, do you intend to elevate women’s social esteem in your paintings, or do you treat women visually differently just by virtue of the fact you’re not a straight man painting?
Both, I think. I almost always use people I know as models for my paintings, but I based the figure for “In the Study” on a girl from some Eastern European porn site. I wanted that slightly seedy feeling to the figure, but in turn wanted to elevate a ‘nudie’ model to the status of fine art through an oil portrait. Why should that be reserved for presidents and judges? I suppose it’s just having a different vantage point on the ‘pretty ladies’– the pin-up girl or Playboy Bunny. The painting is more or less from their perspective. There’s power in their exhibitionism. They have commandeered their nudity. They are in control and want to be part of the conversation. Female nudes have been the subject of art for centuries. I’m just doing it from a woman’s perspective.
Clearly, you like women. Do you consider your work part of a feminist tradition?
I’ll let other people deal with the labels. What I can say is that the label ‘woman artist’ is something I object to. I’m an artist first. I happen to be a woman and that fact affects what I paint. I do have a confession, and it’s something I’ve never talked about before in relation to my painting. It isn’t until one gets a bit older and is able to look back on events in one’s life that things begin to make sense.
Before I became a painter I was an actor, or at least, an aspiring one. I was very focused from a young age. I studied theatre in Michigan and New York and ended up in Los Angeles. I landed a role on a cheesy late-night teen soap opera called MTV’s Undressed. People might remember it from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. Ironically, I played the know-it-all, lesbian lover of the Doublemint Twins. My character was not so far off from some of my work now! After I finished the season I had a crisis of confidence. I felt like there was a boot on my neck, like I was suffocating and exposed.
Painting was something I had control over. It wasn’t dependent on how I looked. I didn’t need permission to do it. Painting was empowerment. I left L.A., came back to New York and began to study. My work is still very theatrical, sometimes slightly campy, sometimes dramatic, a bit glossy, but underneath I know there’s truth. I can say the intention behind each piece is sincere. I suppose, in a way, the women I paint could have been the roles I would have played had I continued as an actor. In retrospect, it seems natural that I would paint women asserting their power.
What do you most like about the physical act of painting?
Actually, I often dislike the physical feeling I get from painting too long. My eyes get fatigued, and the concentration is intense. But I have to admit I do like the escapism. I don’t have to deal with anything else, and most people don’t bother me because it looks like I’m doing something very important, even if I’m not.
Are you a fast painter working feverishly to capture a feeling? Or do you paint slowly, considering and reconsidering the feeling over the passage of time, distilling a painting like liquor?
It begins with my neurotic plotting of subject matter and models. From taking pictures and sittings, to putting together material, stretching the canvas and blocking in the work. The actual painting takes a long time, especially if you are working in layers of oil paint, as I do. Somehow I always complete them in spite of my perfectionism, and instinct to run away, drink heavily or start something else that excites me. But I don’t. I never leave a painting unfinished. It’s a monumental undertaking, but it is worth it in the end.
You seem to find artistic inspiration across at least 20 centuries of art history. Do you feel all of art history is your palette?
I love many depictions of the human figure across the centuries, from twisted gilded medieval icons to the mastery of the nude by the greatest artists of the Renaissance. Stylistically, I draw heavily on the Dutch masters. The second century AD Roman sculpture “Sleeping Hermaphrodite,” which I saw in the Louvre inspired my Reclining Hermaphrodite. My paintings “Hounded” and “Three Nurses” are just contemporary takes on “Venus and the Three Graces.” “Transgression” and “One Bad Apple” can be interpreted as Eve rejecting centuries of condemnation.
But some of my pieces, like “2 Girls, 1 Shank,” which is a riff on the Internet porno video “2 Girls, 1 Cup,” are inspired by current themes. My still life paintings of a dildo with pearls, plastic blue stiletto heels or boob-shaped balloons are meant to be comedic but erotic takes on a disposable, detached and increasingly artificial world. I think rendering them in something as permanent as oil paint is both classic and current and keeps a foot and a brush, so to speak, in the past and present.
I would like to paint something as big and complex as one of those tapestries, and I’m in the beginning stages of planning that. You know, naked ladies, maybe some bunnies, Persian rugs, peacock feathers, motorcycles and a few borzoi running around–modern-day debauchery. I just need a harem of models and a big mansion to hang it in, like a contemporary court painter!
You combine the Old Masters, like Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Balthus, with the visual values of Realism. You’ve been semi-formally adopted by the New Contemporary/Lowbrow art movement. Yet you seem to remain an outlier, a fence-sitter balanced between classicism and new contemporary. If you had to, where do you place yourself in the schools of art?
I am totally a fence-sitter! For better or worse, I’ve just kind of done what I’ve wanted to do and not thought too much about where I fit in. I was at a party not long ago and someone asked me with all sincerity, ‘But how do you know what to paint? How do you KNOW what people are going to buy?’ and I had to laugh because it was such an obvious and innocent question from a non-artist. I had to tell her I had forgotten to think about that part!
You once said of the paintings that you love best, they all seem to share a quality: “It is tenderness, a sensitive rendering of the human portrayed. It’s an emotion captured within the paint as if it were a skin drawn tight over a real human experience.” This tenderness is present in your work. How do you balance that feeling of human tenderness with the raw and provocative nature of your work?
I live in the West Harlem/Morningside Heights area of Manhattan. I’m lucky to have the vibrance of Harlem in one direction and the natural beauty of Riverside Park, the Hudson River and Columbia University in the other. This helps me get a contrast in cultures right in my own neighborhood. I spend an unreasonable amount of time at the local coffee shop where I do watch people passing by and probably stare a little too much at times. It’s their physical characteristics I’m looking at. Someone’s coloring, the way skin tone and a blue vein at their temple blends into their hairline. The way an eyebrow fades in the light. Quirky little perfectionist-detail-oriented-observations like that. I guess I find tenderness in the rendering of these notes in oil paint.
Whose work today makes you feel gobsmacked?
I really like Hilary Harkness and Julie Heffernan. They both deal with an insane amount of detail in different ways. I know there’s a ton of work and even more thought that goes into each of their paintings. I guess I am just gobsmacked by technical rigor, historical knowledge, political consciousness, beauty, humor and just good old erotic imagery in a classic setting.
Rose Freymuth-Frazier’s official website.