Daily Tribune

Tribune Article Published: Thursday, January 13, 2005

“John Frame’s meaning of life” By Shirle Gottlieb

The Long Beach Museum of Art starts 2005 with the disquieting  yet soulful “Enigma Variations.”
On view are 45 figurative sculptures created by California artist John Frame over the past 25 years. Each of these iconic works is first hand-carved from wood, then combined with select found objects to depict dramatic scenes that search for the meaning of life.

From the beginning of history, people all over the world have been yearning for answers to the same questions: “who am I, where did I come from, where am I going,” and most significant of all, “why am I here?” Knowing that all living creatures face death, people down through the ages have pondered the meaning of it all: how to understand our brief allotment of time on Earth in relationship to the grand scheme of things.

Leading inquiries into the subject of meaning have been philosophers, theologians, scientists and artists (both visual and performing). In the case of “Enigma Variations,” it’s Frame —— and what a well-versed, highly informed Renaissance artist he is.

Walking into the museum to see his astonishing exhibit of sculpture is a personal, deeply felt journey. Frame shares his deepest feelings through the intimate references and allusions he makes in his work. You share yourself with him through your interpretation of each piece based on your personal life experience.

With visual references and subtle allusions to the Bible and the Crusades, Greek tragedy and mythology, Chaucer and Shakespeare, the Inquisition and the Middle Ages, fairy tales and parables, Beckett and burlesque, the human comedy and the circus, each small construction is a human drama unto itself.

Sometimes it’s comical. Not lighthearted ha-ha funny stuff, but clutch-your-stomach tragicomedy as in Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” For good examples of this, search out “God’s Bugs” or “Old Monkey Chase Me,” where death (a skeleton) chases life around the split-second existence of a pop-up jack-in-the-box.

The mind-bending content of Frame’s work does not ignore the high quality of his aesthetic craftsmanship, but underscores the importance of his spiritual concerns in our ongoing violent universe.

Many of the sculptures depict people as puppets or marionettes that are manipulated by powerful forces behind the scenes. Some of them feature dunces or baboons that act mindlessly (monkey see, monkey do) and behave as they are told.

For example, in “Rail: A Self Portrait’ (composed inside an ominous stained box), a sinister form stands behind the artist’s benign face, which features a long Pinocchio nose. On top of the box, a tiny figure holds a long string that controls the artist’s hand, manipulating it to point an ever-accusatory finger.

The imagery in two of the works evoke the biblical story of Noah’s ark and the flood (“To the Fisherman Lost in the Land’ and “Self Portrait in the Narrow Sea’). Whether the ark is landlocked as in the former, or sailing adrift with a death skeleton beside the artist and a clown in the anchor, it’s safe to bet that these arks are in big trouble.

Exploring the mysteries of life has been the open-ended subject of serious disciplines throughout history. From life, death and mortality through transformation and rebirth, to questioning the very existence of God in a war-ravaged world or dealing with quantum physics and string theory, it’s a gargantuan undertaking. Frame tackles it poetically with sincerity, integrity, talent, authority and great courage.

—— Shirle Gottlieb is a Long Beach freelance writer.