John Frame – “Three Fragments of a Lost Tale” at Huntington Library

Photo copyright by John Frame


Photo copyright by John Frame

John Frame has been creating figurative sculpture examining the human condition since the 1980s. In this most recent project, he has expanded into photography and filmmaking to give additional dimension to the pieces.
“This is an exciting departure from our more typical exhibitions at The Huntington,” says Jessica Todd Smith, Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art. “We very rarely have featured living artists, but John’s work is so closely connected with The Huntington’s collections—from Shakespeare to William Blake—that it resonated strongly with all of us.” The artist also has been invited to curate an installation in the Huntington Art Gallery of about a dozen Huntington-owned works by Blake. That display, “Born to Endless Night: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints by William Blake Selected by John Frame,” will run concurrent with the main exhibition.

“Three Fragments of a Lost Tale” is co-curated by Smith and Kevin M. Murphy, The Huntington’s Bradford and Christine Mishler Associate Curator of American Art. 

The project had its beginnings in a dream: Frame was jolted awake by what seemed like an unfolding story complete with cast and scenes. It would become his next body of work and, he says, may carry him through the remainder of his lifetime.

At the heart of the project is a cast of characters made of intricately carved wood and found objects. Distinct from earlier work, these figures are fully articulated, with moving limbs, fingers, jaws, and eyes,  evoking complex identities with distinct interests.    

The loosely defined narrative that serves as the underpinnings to the project is one of loss and discovery, but it is not overtly presented in the exhibition and is only hinted at in the film. It has never been Frame’s intent to provide a linear narrative in the exhibition proper. One interpretation of it can be found in the book that accompanies the exhibition. But the artist is quick to point out that, over time, the components have become more and more independent of one another.  The exhibition, he says, is a “mid-point look-in” as the project continues to evolve.  It provides an opportunity for exhibition visitors to use their imaginations and bring their own life experiences to the perception of the work.

In the gallery, the sculptures—from 3½ to 32 inches high—will appear in small clusters as well as alone, some on a stage and others on single pedestals. Frame’s stop-motion animated film will be screened in an adjacent room of the gallery, along with a short film about the artist by filmmaker Johnny Coffeen; both are scored by Frame. The artist’s black-and-white and color still photography of his sculpture will round out the exhibition.

The figures are fanciful and carefully detailed, with both human and nonhuman features. Principal characters include Mr. R, an older figure with tall, rabbit-like ears; Cat V, a younger figure with a feline face; Argus, who wears a coat made of a hundred eyes; and O-Man, a sad-eyed astronomer outfitted with telescopic headgear. They cross paths with various characters and visit curious places, and along the way are accompanied by the Tottentanzers (“death dancers” in German), a performance troupe of 12 who travel from town to town, putting on morality plays and theatrical dramas.

Claremont Graduate University associate professor and art critic David Pagel notes in the accompanying book, “Pondering questions that just may be impossible to answer—but are impossible to ignore once they get in your head—is essential to Frame’s art.” He goes on to say, ”[Frame’s] goal is to come to some kind of understanding of his life’s meaning, purpose, and point…while at the same time inviting viewers also to come to some kind of understanding of their own lives.”

Pagel is also careful to point out that “Frame’s works do not illustrate a single, definitive story—or, for that matter, illustrate anything at all—so much as they entice a viewer’s imagination into the action. Each of us is free to interpret the expressions and gestures of the artist’s characters howsoever we see fit.”

Frame’s work is heavily informed by the craftsmanship of the 19th century; in fact, he has said that his approach to the process of making art is most accurately reflected by a quotation from 19th-century English art critic and influential thinker John Ruskin: “Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.”

Frame, who has an M.F.A. from Claremont Graduate School, spent his early years as an artist experimenting with painting, printmaking, and drawing; it was by chance that he began working with wood, ultimately settling into it as a sculptural medium. The Long Beach Museum of Art presented a critically acclaimed retrospective of his work in 2005.

The exhibition is funded in part by the Ahmanson Foundation exhibition and educational endowment at The Huntington.

This show runs March 12 – June 27, 2011

By Jim McKinniss

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