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Spatial Ambiguity: An Interview with Carol Miller Frost

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The experience of viewing Light Engagement, Carol Miller Frost’s solo show at C. Grimaldis Gallery, is anything but what its title implies. One doesn’t have to be an expert in abstract art to appreciate these oil paintings and drawings and the moods they provoke. Frost’s viewer feels treated to an experience; the paintings and drawings are stark without being clinical or cool. There is energy here in the play between foreground and background, with a humming in between from the way the shapes navigate the edges. Tension resides in the heady juxtaposition of darkness, volume, and focus, along with the surprisingly minimal color Frost asserts.

Frost is interested in “uncertainty and openness” in her work. The nine pieces on view in Light Engagement reflect and embody her intuitive inquiries with an interplay of technique and material that achieves a spatial ambiguity that’s innovative and fresh. This is abstraction at its most dynamic and best. The playful pressure is almost classical in its fluctuant beauty.

Originally from Philadelphia, Frost came to Baltimore for a graduate program at the Maryland Institute College of Art, receiving her MFA in 1986. Frost taught for many years at the Loyola University of Maryland and directed the school’s Julio Fine Arts Gallery from 2002 to 2008. Throughout her career, Frost has received numerous grants and awards and has exhibited her work widely. Frost’s work has been collected by the Baltimore Museum of Art, the University of Richmond Museums, various corporate collections, and numerous private collections, among others. 

I spoke with Frost about her show at Grimaldis, the importance of drawing, bringing emotion and presence into abstract art, and minimalistic power.

 

 

Clustering, 2021, oil on canvas, 50 x 60 inches
The minimal artists, like Donald Judd, tried to erase the emotion. I bring the emotion. 
Carol Miller Frost

Karen Fish: Tell me about the work you have up at Grimaldis. I understand it sprang from a Nova Scotia landscape, hay bales, and then experimenting with space. Did you start with the drawings first or the paintings? 

Carol Miller Frost: I started with drawings. The first couple were representative of bales of hay. The first was a drawing 20 feet long, done in charcoal. 

How did you get from there to what we see now?

I think I got interested in circles because, even drawing the bales of hay representationally, the hay didn’t look like bales. Looking at the bales, I saw circles. Circles relate to so many things—our planet, cosmos, circles are in our lives. Lots of artists have written about circles. Circles are ever-expanding. Agnes Martin, who only made lines, wouldn’t work with circles because she felt circles were too expansive.  

For me, I naturally gravitate to abstraction. Even in school, I abstracted images. Maybe that’s just the way I think. I’ve always been drawing. Drawing is important in my work and black is important. My drawings are pen and ink or charcoal. I see drawing as an end in itself. Only on occasion do I see drawings as preliminary. Drawing is concrete. Most of my drawings end up being final pieces. I did a residency at Vermont Studio Center with Jake Berthot some years ago, a very good painter. He helped me see the circles outside a linear perspective and bring my work into a more contemporary space. 

Can you tell me more about Jake Berthot?

He was an abstract painter who showed at McKee Gallery in New York City for many years and taught at Dartmouth. His work is in most major museums and is world-renowned. There were ten other visual artists at the center and he made studio visits critiquing our work. I believe his intention was to help the artist see their work in a different light, different perspective. I was fortunate to have worked with him. That experience was wonderful. He helped me to grow.

When I look at this show I think of Richard Serra. Not that your work is like his work, but there is something about the power, the strength of the images that reminds me of the way he investigated volume and weight.

Yes, and surface. I think Serra did investigate surface. His father worked as a pipe fitter in a shipyard, so he had to have been around all that when he was young. His mother encouraged him to draw. I definitely love his work. It’s the density of the black. His work is very emotional. I have always tried to use minimal imagery and bring emotion to my work. The minimal artists, like Donald Judd, tried to erase the emotion. I bring the emotion. 

Serra’s work has an authority and presence. What felt attractive about the minimal color palette in your work?

People see black as death. I see black as life. If you go to South America, white signals death. They wear white to funerals. I see black as vivid. The high contrast, black and white and grey—that allows me to make the spatial ambiguity more powerful. I see black as power. 

The drawings and paintings seem to be all about presence and articulating ground. When you are working are you thinking about the audience? 

When I’m working, I’m present in the work and so I want the audience to feel present. When one has a large painting that is bigger than you are, it’s easy to immerse oneself. I think the audience comes to work with what they know and have experienced. That’s the way it should be. Everyone has a different take. I do try to engage the audience, not that I have tricks. It’s like teaching—you have to engage your students. I think it is the same, all about the attempt of engagement.

 

Rendezvous, 2021, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches

 

Hitched, 2021, oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches

This Grimaldis show is so cohesive. The pieces together have a cumulative power. The drawings and paintings definitely have an identity as a group and play off each other, enhance each other. Each piece has presence and stands alone but the drawings and paintings together, wow! 

Artists aren’t always the best at knowing how to hang their own work or create a show. I started showing with Grimaldis in 2009 and [owner Constantine Grimaldis] has great instincts. Our aesthetics line up. He’s been very supportive of my work and continues to be. Grimaldis loves art. He knows what he is doing. 

How has the pandemic affected your creative practices?

The pandemic sent me to my studio every day. I’m isolated there, so I was able to work and get a fair amount done. I went to New York to see the Alice Neel show [at the Met] and saw the Jasper Johns show in Philadelphia. I haven’t been visiting a lot of galleries. I missed a couple of really good shows. The pandemic, until recently, has kept artists out of openings and galleries. The pandemic has been really hard on the art world.

How have you adapted to feeding yourself creatively?

I’m an existentialist. One has to do the work. One has to show up and have a regular schedule. I have too many friends who say they can’t work regularly. They talk about inspiration. I believe in what I’m doing and have to be here to work. One percent inspiration and the rest is showing up, working. It’s all about doing it. Grace Hartigan once told me she worked every single day. I don’t work every day but I work most days.

What are you working on now?

I am following up on some paintings that go with this show but that I hadn’t finished in time. I’ve been using oil stick, copper oil stick over black and off-white ground, textures, and little inflections of color on gessoed paper. I don’t know if I will go to full color. I’m having a good time.  

What about landscape?

Landscape has always influenced my work. Landscape is space and light, looking at space. When I’m out west, landscape is inspirational and spiritual. Another thing about my recent paintings, I think they have a sense of touch. By sense of touch, I mean when I’m using a brush, I feel it. There’s a vibration around some of the edges. There are hard edges, but there’s a vibration, and I read that as “touching.”  

Whose work do you have enthusiasm for?

[Laughs] I like Richard Serra, Agnes Martin. I look at artwork of all different styles. I like Rothko, Anne Truitt. Richard Serra’s line drawings. Mary Heilmann, Amy Sillman, Hilma af Klint, the light artist James Turrell. That’s just a few. There are many more artists whose work I like. 

What was the last big trip you took prior to the pandemic?

Italy in 2018. Of course, I did all the cathedrals and museums and ate lots of pasta. I spent quite a bit of time in France, one of my favorite places. I did a residency in France, lived in a village, stayed in a chateau. I made a lot of drawings there. 

Are there shows you are looking forward to?

Joan Mitchell will be at the BMA, Sophie Taeuber-Arp at MOMA, Bridget Riley at the Phillips Collection, Kandinsky at the Guggenheim Museum.

What are you reading? 

All that She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family’s Keepsake by Tiya Miles.  History of the Baltimore Ma and Pa Railroad, it’s about where I lived on East Lane, where the tracks ran right through the meadow. Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler by Mary Gabriel. It’s a very important book. It’s a heavy read. I read a wide range. I pulled out the Philip Roth, American Pastoral. Sitting here waiting to be read is Letters of A Nation edited by Andrew Carroll.

 

 

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