In a city like Los Angeles, whole industries are based on revision of reality. One Georgia-born artist, turned LA native, C. Michael Frey, seeks to capture the sublime in the every day world. His exhibition “Clouds” is currently showing in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. With this collection, Frey invites viewers to “get lost in a sense of wonderment and escape.”
Frey achieved a B.F.A. in painting and drawing from the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia and later moved to New York City to pursue his art. There, Frey worked in a commercial photographer’s studio, where he honed his skills in digital illustration and photographic retouching. An award winning artist, Frey’s work has been featured in advertising campaigns, on album covers, and in magazines such as The New York Times, New York Magazine, Numéro, V, and Wired.
We caught up with Frey in Los Angeles about his upcoming exhibition of Clouds, and his other current works.
TTDOG: Tell us about the move from painting and digital design to photography. Why Clouds?
CMF: I’ve always used photography as part of my creative process, so I don’t really feel I’ve moved away from painting. It’s more of an exploration of another medium that has happened organically.
The Cloud photos weren’t really planned. I moved to Los Angeles about ten years ago from New York and the sky feels so different here. It’s expansive and seems limitless. If I’m having a bad day or feeling stressed, I can easily escape in nature by taking a walk around the neighborhood or going for a hike. The open sky puts things in perspective. We seldom have clouds, but when we do the sunsets are often amazing. I started photographing these moments and really wanted to capture the drama of the clouds and take a subject that is generally seen as pedestrian in art and reveal the sublime nature of these clouds. Clouds are representative of the creative process itself: daydreaming and romanticism. There is a quote by Henry David Thoreau: “you must not blame me if I do talk to clouds.” This communion with and escape to nature and finding divinity in nature that the Transcendentalists strived for really resonates with me.
Romanticism is about the heart and idealism. Clouds are great symbols of idealism to me. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve so not engaging my heart isn’t really an option.
TTDOG: When you say spirituality in this context, do you mean Judeo-Christian concepts of heaven being in the sky?
CMF: It can mean that, but it doesn’t have to. Even in non western and pagan traditions, the sky is held in high regard, often where the gods reside. But specifically for me, spirituality is about a connectedness to our environment. It’s more about recognizing the power of Nature and how there’s a seemingly “other” world happening above us all the time.
TTDOG: What is your creative process? Does it differ for photography, art and design?
CMF: With painting I always have a clear idea of what I want to paint and a plan before I take paintbrush to canvas. I mostly paint people and photography has been instrumental in capturing subjects and developing the image I want to create. Usually a subject will sit for me and I take a series of photographs. I’ll edit the shoot and pick my favourites and then start manipulating them on the computer until they are close to what I want to recreate in a painting. I’ll print out images I refer to while I’m painting. But it’s not so much about just recreating what I see. It’s about the feeling. When I paint someone’s portrait, I really want to show their essence. Georgia O’Keefe said: “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” This really sums up what I’m trying to accomplish as a painter.
With photography it’s a much more simplified process that’s about being in the moment and being a witness to that moment. I capture what I see in front of me. There’s no planning and I’m not controlling the subject. With the Clouds photo series, I’m zooming in on details to find something that’s compelling. In a way it’s much more freeing than developing a painting that I spend weeks working on. The tedious part comes with editing thousands of images down to the best ones and getting the printing right. With the Clouds series, I wanted to capture the same ephemeral nature of clouds with the printing, so I had them mounted on acrylic to get a sense of lightness and light. It also helps the colours to pop and gives the images a gem-like quality.
Graphic design is a totally different animal that requires a mindset that is often the opposite of what I’m doing when I paint or take photographs for myself. With design, I’m always trying to communicate to a specific audience for a client. It’s not about my message. I may be using many of the same tools, but the goals are different. In creating art, whether it be a painting or photograph, I’m trying to inspire or challenge a viewer to think about things or view things differently, which can sometimes be uncomfortable. With graphic design, you generally aren’t trying to challenge the viewer. It’s more about positive engagement and commerce. Good design usually makes the viewer feel good whereas good art may leave the viewer crying in the fetal position.
TTDOG: Goodness! I’m not going to your gallery with you!
CMF: I meant that more figuratively but I did have someone start bawling in front of one of my paintings, once.
TTDOG: I think if I were to start bawling in front of your cloud series, it would be in a healing way; they are full of joy and love and even innocence.
CMF: Yes, and it’s actually a big change in the subject matter of my work. The paintings of my earlier years are very dark, intense and melancholy.
TTDOG: To what do you attribute this change?
CMF: Mostly, deciding that being an artist doesn’t have to be about suffering. At 41, I’ve also become content in who I am as a person. Presently, life is more about what I can accomplish now and being happy in the moment rather than struggling to figure it all out.
TTDOG: I know that you paint from a sense of deep connection to something bigger than yourself. Do you experience the same connection with photography?
CMF: They are very different experiences. When I’m painting I can go into a very meditative state where I lose track of time and really just start feeling what I’m creating. There’s a flow to it where I feel like I start to channel that creative muse. There is also a lot of time spent just looking and thinking. There is something very therapeutic about it that I don’t experience from anything else.
Photography is much more about a single moment in time. It can actually be frustrating because the camera separates you from the subject. The real challenge in photography is capturing what the subject is making you feel.
TTDOG: How much of the feel of the cloud photos is from digital manipulation? What do you make of those purists who define photography as only that which is captured in camera?
CMF: For the Cloud photos, there is very little digital manipulation beside some colour tweaks to make prints match what I’m seeing on screen. For the most part they are cropped the way I have shot them. I try to find the most interesting moment happening at the time and shoot many frames so I have options.
I can understand why some people define photography that way, but I’m no purist. It gets boring to have too many rules.
TTDOG: Your photographs in the cloud series have a painterly quality to them. Some of them have a feel of a Rothko or an Agnes Martin, in that the colour and subtle gradations draw the viewer in to a meditative state. How, if at all, do you think your painting has influenced your photography?
CMF: That’s a very flattering comparison. Thank you. My most recent paintings have been minimalist portraits that use colour gradients. I’ve become interested in the way colour and subtlety can have an impact, rather than spelling everything out with great detail and realism. That interest has definitely carried over to my cloud photos. I like the idea of breaking things down to their most basic parts.
Minimalism is very freeing, I think. It allows you to see things you’ve never noticed before in a new way. It’s amazing to me how a single colour can evoke emotion.
I want people to have an emotive response through colour when seeing my work but it’s not as simple as if I paint someone’s portrait in blue that I want them to feel sad. Mostly I’m using colour, when I paint, to relate to the individual I’m painting. I guess it’s more about how I see them and the aura they give off. With the clouds, I don’t have any control over that.
Of course I’m in control of what I choose to photograph. But how the subject changes while I’m photographing, I have no control over. I love the ephemeral nature of the Clouds for that reason. If I’m not fast enough I can miss out.
And definitely through the editing process, it’s all about what speaks to me and what I find interesting.
I have a long work history working in print so I’ve learned the technical ins and outs of how to get a print to look the way you want. But, having a printer who you are confident in is definitely vital. Luckily most printers these days have colour profiles available if you are making digital c-prints. But, there is still a lot of trial and error.
TTDOG: Who are your influences?
CMF: In general, I really love old masters like Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Jacques-Louis David. I’ve always been drawn to figurative work and especially artists who know how to manipulate light and expertly render the human form. Cindy Sherman has been a big influence on the subject matter of my painting. I used to primarily paint self portraits and have always been drawn to exploring the concepts of identity and perception.
The cloud photos have been a big change in the type of art I make. When creating the cloud photos, I thought a lot about William Turner’s cloud study paintings. His expressive use of colour captures the power of nature in a way that I wanted to communicate through these photos. It also made me think a lot about color theory and has influenced my recent portraits which are much more minimalist in colour. I’ve developed a great appreciation for modern minimalist artists that play with colour and spectrum like Josef Albers, Elisworth Kelly and James Turrell.
TTDOG: You mentioned colour theory before, when we were looking at some artworks together. Can you explain more about that for those of us who are unfamiliar with it?
CMF: Color theory is understanding how different colours relate to each other and how they interact when they are combined. Color created by light and color created by pigment work very differently. It can get rather technical and complicated, especially when you are trying to get a photograph to match what you are seeing on a digital screen.
Colour created through light is additive. If you combine Red, Green and Blue, you get white and there are millions of colour variations. The opposite is true with paint, which is subtractive. Mixing those colours together in pigment would leave you with a muddy mess. And the spectrum is much more narrow with pigments: there are only thousands of colours that can be reproduced.
TTDOG: You have some pretty exciting work that has come out of this collection. Tell us about that.
CMF: Yes, Urban Outfitters recently contacted me about doing an artist partnership with them using some of my Cloud images. The images will be printed on a variety of products like tapestries and bedding as well as clothing. The first pieces of the line will be available this coming holiday season.
TTDOG: Will there be more photo series?
CMF: I intend to continue photographing clouds as long as they are in the sky, which is hopefully a few more years, at least. I’m not sure where this series will lead; I’m just going to see where it goes naturally. I’ve been thinking of ideas for how to mix the Cloud images with painting. But in my heart, I’m more of a painter than a photographer. Ideally I’d like to be able to work successfully in a variety of mediums, and for there to still be a common thread that can be seen.
TTDOG: Artists have a certain reputation for being free spirits and promiscuous. But you are married, settled and stable. How has this helped or hindered your work?
CMF: For the most part it’s given me the space and ability to work freely without having to worry so much about income. My husband, Tim, is very supportive of my work. If anything I’m sure he wishes I were more prolific and spent more time painting. It is challenging to work as a freelance designer and manage my time so that I have time to paint.
In western culture we have a very romanticized view of the ‘starving artist.’ When I was younger, I had the notion that one needed a lot of drama and sadness in their life to be an artist. That’s not very sustainable or interesting after a certain age. I’m very grateful for the happiness I’ve found being in a happy, long term marriage. It’s been freeing for me to let go of my preconceived notions of what life as an artist and particularly a gay man, should look like. I’m not really one to look back and question what could have been. Life is a journey about learning, and I’m grateful for the choices I’ve made that have led me to the life I have today.
TTDOG: You have exhibited Clouds in a West Hollywood shop at now an Eagle Rock craft beer tasting room. They are not conventional venues. What made you choose to show this collection in this way? Why do you suppose more artists are exhibiting in this way?
CMF: I originally showed my Cloud series at TENOVERSIX in West Hollywood. The owners are great friends of mine and I’ve been doing design work for them since they opened. They’ve an amazing eye for everything from fashion to housewares to art. I was honoured that they showed my Cloud photos.
Craft Beer Cellar, where I’m showing the Clouds from Saturday night is in Eagle Rock, a couple of blocks from my house. They opened about a year ago and recently started showing art. I’ve become friends with the owners and asked them if they would be willing to show my work. Eagle Rock has a unique art and social scene and in many ways feels more like a small town than just a neighborhood in LA. I haven’t been showing my work in Los Angeles until recently. I’ve mostly been focused on my graphic design business and haven’t been putting my art out there. Honestly, I find the art world extremely intimidating, but I’m getting over that and am taking the first steps to have my work seen.
I think more artists are showing their work in unconventional spaces because there is so much competition out there for gallery shows , and there are also just a lot more interesting spaces that people can interact with your work these days. But non-gallery spaces like coffee shops and restaurants have always been great starting points for getting your work out there so people can see it. You have to start somewhere.
TTDOG: What’s next for you?
CMF: I really hope to show more of my work in the coming year, get in some group shows, and hopefully have a solo show in a gallery. I’m going to continue to grow my portrait series and cloud photos. I’d love to create a book with the Clouds, but the expense of printing a fine art book is rather prohibitive. If I could find a publisher, that would be wonderful.
TTDOG: Where do you find your greatest joy and for what are you most grateful?
CMF: I find my greatest joy in sharing food with friends and loved ones. I love to cook – it’s a quick creative outlet that helps me be more social and share my talents with other people. There’s something very comforting about providing nourishment for others. We host a weekly potluck for friends that has become something I look forward to each week.
I’m most grateful for my relationship with my husband. Tim is my rock. He’s my biggest support, but he also grounds me, gives me very practical critiques in my design work and art, and keeps me balanced.
***UPDATE: Clouds will be showing again from 6 Feb-12 Feb at Space 15 Twenty, 1520 N Cahuenga Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028. Closing event will be held on 12 Feb 11am- 2pm***
(Previously, there was a Clouds opening event Saturday, 10 September, at Craft Beer Cellar at 5 p.m. as part of the NELA Second Saturday Art Walk. Craft Beer Cellar is located at 1353 Colorado Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90041. Tel: 323-206-5164.)
Images from the exhibition will be on sale at the shop and tap room and via Frey’s website. The show runs now through the end of September.