Shocking. Profane. Beautiful. Inspiring. These are but a few of the vast and diverse adjectives used to describe contemporary art. As a figural painter and photographer, Lindsay Frei has intentionally blurred the boundaries of such classifications, creating work that is both skillful and intelligent.
An undeniable talent marks Frei’s work, evident in the technical rendering of her subjects. What sets her work apart however, is an added layer of ambiguity and mystery that pervades the experience of viewing it.
It’s been a busy year for Frei, who in addition to graduating with her MFA in painting from the University of Utah this May, has participated in a number of solo and group exhibitions. Although she has been working professionally as an artist for the past several years, a definite momentum accompanies her recent work. Her paintings and photographs of tattooed figures, caught in moments of undress, vulnerability and movement, have resonated with audiences around the Salt Lake Valley, evident by her award for “Best Edge-y Art” in City Weekly’s recent “Best of Utah” edition.
Frei’s work wasn’t always so raw. “I had a very traditional training. I used to have a specific formula for what made good art. Right after art school, I realized I was good at my craft but I wasn’t sure if I was a good artist,” Frei says.
While it’s common for artists to actively experiment with subject and style, Frei’s process evolved from technical to personal. “I started out doing still lifes [in part] because I wanted to create art that would sell. I really enjoyed them and enjoyed the problem of figuring out how to paint something on a two-dimensional surface.” What began as an interest in one of art’s customary, yet difficult subjects, eventually turned into something entirely different. “Then I realized that the way I was setting them up was not normal. I remember painting these tomato slices and they started to become anthropomorphic to me, as if they were fighting with each other.” It’s this recognition that served as the gateway to the artist’s signature figural pieces.
By detecting human qualities in non-living objects, Frei realized her work had the potential to explore decidedly psychological elements of human existence. “That’s why I began painting clothing, because [clothes] are tailored to a particular person. Then I started to realize that everything was figurative to me, and that I had been avoiding the figure in my previous work.”
Her full-scale investigation of the human figure then became the vehicle for uncovering the beauty and frailty of life. “My figures have always been kind of hidden by fashion: sunglasses, scarves, etc.” While artists throughout time have often bypassed such items as obstacles in the path to human anatomy itself, Frei appears intensely interested in how and why clothing mediates our psychological existence. “This current work is about that vulnerability of exposing yourself to people, both literally and psychologically,” she says of the work that has been produced since her MFA.
“Give” (36” x 48”), pictures a figure at close range, from the head to just above the navel. Placed on a sterile gray background, the figure’s arms intersect the face in the act of pulling a shirt above the head. The only indication of gender is a black bra exposed underneath the upward moving shirt. Colorful tattoos adorn the figure’s arms and stomach, inviting viewers to take note of elements apart from the movement. Often, there’s an inherently seductive connotation to the act of undressing, and the history of art is replete with examples of the artist’s voyeuristic gaze. What we see in Frei’s work, however, is akin to an artistic investigation in which the forms—and psychological implications—of clothes are conflated.
For many of Frei’s paintings, movement is far more interesting than stasis. “I love those in-flux moments because it’s even more vulnerable than simply being exposed. Because people have a choice, they are in a moment where they can either open up or shut down, but that moment of choice is when and how we reveal ourselves to other people,” she says.
While Frei’s subjects are often suspended in time, still more interesting are the works in which she has added to or painted over the original figure. In ”Interchange” (36” x 36”), we see this effect. A fully painted figure in a quarter-profile view gazes downward, outside the picture plane. His chest is bare and his entire left arm is covered in tattoos. A light source from the right side of the image forces the figure to cast a dramatic shadow. Adding to his haunting presence is a second figure who looms above, stretching a shirt horizontally over the entire canvas. The second figure’s face and hands are all that is immediately recognizable about the sketched figure, although subtle indications of his bodily presence loom above and in between the figure placed beneath him.
The process of crafting and reworking a painting signifies the continual evolution of the self in social, personal and psychological interactions. “This series of paintings and photographs uses images of various states of undress as a metaphor for the difficult binaries inherent in seeing and knowing another person. It is inside/outside, disappearing/emerging, secret/revelation, visible/invisible,” Frei says.
A Utah native, Frei completed her undergraduate degree in painting at the University of Utah in 2000, before moving to the small artist community of Helper, where she lived from 2001-08. She later gained representation in California, and moved back to Salt Lake City, where she’s contemplated the local art scene. “I want to be part of a current conversation. Utah has a really strong landscape, still life scene. It was important for me to show the work here. I do think there are a lot of interesting figurative artists here, but oftentimes figurative art is very polished and doesn’t engage the audience. I get the criticism a lot that I only pick the attractive models, and while there is something that is attractive about them, perfection is not what connects you to other people, vulnerability does.”
Frei currently teaches painting at the University of Utah and is Artist-in-Residence at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Her solo exhibition, Inside Out, at the Alice Gallery in Salt Lake City, runs through Jan.15, 2016. An opening reception is Friday, Dec. 4, from 6-9 p.m. Bronwen Beecher and Stephen Keen will provide musical accompaniment.
Scotti Hill is a lawyer, art critic, and curator based in Salt Lake City. She has contributed to various publications and serves as an adjunct professor of art history at Westminster College. She has a Master’s Degree in art history from the University of Utah.