John Frame

John Frame, Poor Tom, wood, 1997 Private Collection“Enigma Variations: The Sculpture of John Frame, 1980–2005,” this Spring at the Long Beach Museum of Art, looked back at the career of an idiosyncratic California artist whose haunting sculptural installations combine crafted wood and found objects. Frame (b. 1950) has a background in theater, dance and literature. His small-scale figurative tableaux draw on a long tradition of theatricality, suggesting puppet shows, medieval morality plays and commedia dell’ arte. Many of his titles are taken from Shakespeare and—without being in any way illustrative—resonate with poetry. Can You Tell Why the Seven Stars Are But Seven (1995) refers to a line spoken by the Fool in King Lear. Frame’s figures have the roughly carved energy of folk art. One personage is a goblin head perched atop an old truck horn; the other—a comic individual wearing an “I am blind” sign—seems to be yearning towards heaven. Both are framed by an arch of rusted machinery against weathered wooden planks. Poor Tom (1997), which also alludes to Lear, features a headless, nude runner taking off from a rough pedestal. Surprisingly elegant, it could be an ancient sculptural fragment, reconceived as a jointed lay figure. Mannequins, both life-like and poignantly artificial, are an important part of Frame’s dramatis personae.

The idea of the fragmented figure has been a significant aspect of the sculptural aesthetic since at least the Renaissance, becoming ascendant with modernists such as Rodin, Brancusi and Giacometti. Frame brings his own surreal sensibility to this theme. As Water is in Water (2002)—another Shakespearean allusion, this time to Antony and Cleopatra—is an assemblage (wood, encaustic, glass, found objects) reminiscent of a Cornell box. Frame suspends a classical torso in an American Gothic clockcase to create an off-beat reliquary. The reliquary configuration becomes more overt in Sebastian Study 3 (2002), with an arrow-pierced hand mounted on a machinery pedestal and encased in a Victorian-style glass bell. It evokes the cult of body parts that was an important component of medieval hagiography.

Craftsmanship is a crucial part of Frame’s work, a solid artisanal underpinning to the complexity of his imaginary worlds. The wooden bas-relief What you are I once was, What I am you will one day be (1990) is a self-deprecating memento mori. The skeleton wears a halo and a false Pinnochio nose, and a painter’s palette appears beside his scythe. One of the most beautiful of his works is very simple. The pair of bas-reliefs titled Balance and Focus surrounds the two mottoes with symbolic designs: a solar system, plants, an insect, a plow and other tools. This reminds us that artist is not only a conceiver but a maker, rooted in the physical realities of his mediums.  Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, California. Telephone (562) 439–2119. On the web at A handsome exhibition catalogue includes color reproductions, essays, an interview with the artist and an exhibition history.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2005, Volume 22, Number 2