Lynda Frese, hair reaching wildly in the air around her, takes in a younger her in two self-portraits from 1978. In one photo, young Frese stands topless in front of a map of the Grand Canyon, arms crossed over her breasts, eyes closed, chin tilted back reverently — the posture of a hippie girl at a communion rail.
“I wanted to put myself in the Grand Canyon,” she says, jittering between the picture and a catty-corner wall of silver-gelatin prints, the next phase of her career. Former Hilliard University Art Museum Curator Laura Blereau picked the photo out to start Frese’s retrospective show, Holy Memories and Earthly Delights, currently on view at the museum. Blereau dug up the photo like it was a buried icon, an arcane totem of obscured meaning.
“She said: ‘This is the beginning of you putting the figure in the natural world,'” Frese recalls. The thought seems tickle her. An insight lifted from an unseen part of her like a quarter from behind her ear.
Thematically, the self-portrait tells us a lot about who Lynda Frese became in her 50-year career. It presages her work in silver-gelatin photography, her nakedly aggressive femininity, her Catholic guilt, her itinerancy, her collaging of sacred spaces and figures, both natural and man-made.
Throughout the exhibition, broken up by theme rather than rote chronology, Frese is revealed as a scattered but intentional thinker, capable of both playfulness and prosecution with respect to idolatry and sacred cows.
A highlight here are pieces from Plant Kingdoms in Antiquity, a series that collides her interest in Catholic iconography, “tropes” as she calls them, and mother earth mysticism. In “Mondo Vegetale,” heads of lettuce occupy the pedestals normally afforded the saints and the Catholic pantheon. The work achieves a muted sepia over found images, glazed in egg tempera, and calms what could be seen as an act of aggression or heresy against the faith. It’s curious. Not contemptuous.
“When I first started doing it I was kind of nervous,” she says. “It’s an ongoing series about the plant kingdoms — the idea of what’s a sacred space. What’s the difference between the sacred and the mundane and who gets to decide that and why? Who does that? Who gets to decide that.”
That’s a striking insight in an art museum, a temple in its own right. On the altar is Lynda Frese, stitched and triangulated like ancient texts. Walking the space with her, in a relational sense, is taking a walk with the prophet herself on hand to decipher eroded clues for meaning.
Clearly, Frese is a wanderer. Decades of wanderlust are on display, including artifacts she’s collected on trips to the ancient world — piles of azure blue pigments, a tiny statuary of compiled idols, rocks, ephemera. Beneath gallery glass, these crumbs and trinkets take on temporary, if faint, transcendence.
Pilgrimage figures prominently in her work. The Singer, a recent series, shakes up its contemplations of sacred spaces — Roman basilicas, gothic arches — with photographs of Bob Dylan, in 1960s Wayfarer cool. Frese says she’s spent in the neighborhood of $2,000 licensing images of the beatnik bard for the series. Again, the juxtaposition here falls short of hostility, leavening the act of blasphemy (against Dylan or the church, who knows?) with the giddiness of a school girl crush. Frese clearly loves Dylan.
“He’s the quintessential pilgrim. His music is a pilgrimage of trying to find where is that sacred ground,” she says.
In a sense, a retrospective is an arrival. Bookending an artist’s work with a beginning and an end puts an artificial destination to a career arc. Because artists rarely retire, the pilgrimage endures. Frese recently retired from teaching art at UL Lafayette. She’s continued to work productively at her studio near the Atchafalaya Basin. She wants to acquire pictures of elderly Dylan, she says, and mine him for further meaning.
Indeed, as Frese works her way around the gallery considering new insights in her own work, it’s clear she has many more sacred spaces to wander.