Fritz’ New Work Sounds Alarm at Billy Shire

By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

The Billy Shire Gallery in Culver City is one of my favorite galleries. There are a lot of painters with cutting edge aesthetics, and a variety of media and messages. It’s a destination for art lovers that appreciate aspects of Low Brow and can chuckle over Bad Boy Art. Some Bad Boy Art is on the light side — a celebration of popular artforms such as cartooning, advertising and bad taste, and some deliberately pushes our buttons. It is naughty, nasty, explicit and unapologetic.


Day in the Life, by Don Fritz, reveals the underlayers of the perfect Fifties

In some respects, the oeuvre of Santa Cruz artist Don Fritz might seem to be working its way from the former to the latter, as he explores truth and lies about childhood. In form, the newer work moves along the same track as earlier paintings, prints and drawings that explore the veneer of sweetness, politeness, denial and taboos that cover up many realities of family life and childhood. Yet, as Fritz moves on to look at adolescence, his forms are becoming more explicit. Images that depict adolescent sexuality in the style of a fifties children’ reader, cannot be easily dismissed at face value as one might have done previously. As in the context of his earlier work, the question becomes “what is under the surface?”

As a child of the fifties, Fritz knew firsthand that the post WWII perfect family was truly a construction of forces that preyed on our growing affluence and sold us the dogma of consumerism. Mom, at home with a boy and girl, baking bread in a kitchen stocked with new appliances and cleaning house with a new vacuum cleaner was just about as good as it gets. Dad brings home the bacon and the family goes to church on Sundays. It suggested that kids raised correctly in such an environment would be well behaved, there would be no scandals, and one size fits all. For Fritz, a spirited kid who had trouble fitting in and knuckling down in school, it was a rather cruel illusion.

Fritz has employed a grade school coloring book style to assemble and layer up image upon image of such fictional domestic perfection combined with oh-so-adorable and impeccably dressed children. These excessively charming scenes may at first appeal to viewers’ nostalgia for that lost epoch of fantasy, but the attentive eye will pick up on a few clues such as handcuffs, a burning tent, or role-modeling toys for boys and girls that give us food for thought. If nothing else, we conclude, looking back at that time, that our post war optimism was pretty short sighted, such moms were a Disney or General Electric confabulation, and these kids are just too perfect.


Don Fritz’ Girl Next Door

Ironically, Post WWII brought television into our homes and a growing awareness of the world we live in. We have come a long way since the fifties. The rules that governed dinner table conversation and media news have radically shifted toward reality. We can hear the real words for body parts and bodily functions on TV. Our economic straits cause us to question consumerism as never before. We know that sex sells merchandise and that sex drives a lot of tragedy of life. TV news tell us about human trafficking for sex and some Austrian wierdo that kept his daughter in a locked cellar, where he raped her for years and forced her to raise the resulting children in windowless captivity. Sex is a weapon of war and gender domination. Sex is the reason we overpopulate the earth relative to our ability to fairly sustain life.

As much as we love sex, we have barely come to terms with it. In the seventies, Ellen Brooks showed life size nude photographs of her children and her children’s friends, in all cases with permission of both the children and their parents. They were beautifully executed works of art, for which she was rudely attacked. Although nude babies would not have caused a stir and the nude muse is a centuries-old staple of art, Brooks’ works were seen by many to be abusive and exploitive.


Still Children, in an adult game: Genkie Girls by Don Fritz

Fritz may have to face some of the same outrage over his series at Billy Shire. These are images that will indeed be misunderstood, because they push buttons. We try to ignore the reality of children as sexual beings. Nudity and sexuality at puberty continues to be seen, no matter how innocent the posture, as a dangerous step away from rampant uncontrolled sexuality. For the male viewer, or the male artist, to discuss such a topic inevitably invites the accusation of lasciviousness and voyeurism. The artist acknowledges the complexity and difficulty of his position. And in fact this is that razor edge that Fritz tries to address.

In the past couple of years Fritz’ exhibitions have taken him to Korea and Japan, where he learned that high school girls (called Ko-girls) engage in “compensatory dating” to earn shopping money. Poor Korean girls are offered credit cards without proof of income. When they cannot pay for their charges they are forced into prostitution to repay the debts incurred. In Thailand and Cambodia, I myself saw and read many reminders that the child prostitution that is notorious in both countries generates much more concern in the West than in Southeast Asia. We can’t quite grapple with the nonchalance. Can the decision to send a minor son off to a life of asceticism in a Buddhist enclave and a minor daughter off the to the City to work in the sex industry be excused on the basis of abject poverty or a philosphy of life or religion? Perhaps it should be mentioned that the laws in Southeast Asia do not support this sex industry/culture, but they are poorly enforced.


Barbie by Don Fritz

Don Fritz asks us to again consider that phase between childhood and full maturity, the age where sexual awareness begins, reproduction is possible, and wisdom is woefully absent. Some of his adolescent girls are sexually precocious nymphs, mindlessly flirting because of hormones they don’t even know by name. Some look like they have had a full diet of hormone fed beef or breast implants at age 12. They cannot see themselves objectively, but boys see them, and like those images of the idealized Mom, his are depictions that refer to both satisfying the male gaze and an insidious commercial outcome. The Girl Next Door, once a playful child in a pink dress, is now forever lost to the adult temptress she is becoming. Fritz’ Genkie Girls are such decidedly children that we are intentionally alarmed and embarrassed. His Barbie is both innocent and seductive in her pajamas, reminding us of that commercial tour de force that many a parent protested but was unable to eradicate.


The coy Genkie Girls, drawing by Don Fritz, at Billy Shire Gallery, Culver City

For the child of the Western world it seems like sex and sexual identity can be the most psychologically painful, confusing and eternally shifting experience for the body as well as the mind. For some of us, it takes a great deal of maturity to take it all in stride and not take offense at our many faceted sexual expressions. Some of us are eternally indignant. Yet if we look carefully at other cultures, and even some of our own youngsters in this epoch, we will be amazed to discover that they demonstrate so much comfort with their own sexuality. As much as we try to engender shame and guilt, it doesn’t stick. Is sex a generational issue that will eventually become moot?

I think Fritz would like us to acknowledge the sexuality of adolescence that we are afraid to talk about. We know we must tell our children the facts of life, but we do not really live with those facts in an honest way in every day life. It is a rare parent or teacher that helps to deconstruct the commercialization of sex and sexual aggression in the media for our kids. Many parents still avoid natural conversation about the natural and everyday experiences related to sex, under the misguided notion that information will lead to experimentation that would not otherwise occur. We do not freely discuss the most gruesome possibilities of sexual abuse with children although their curiosity is natural and they seek out this information anyway. Fritz puts it right out there in our faces in the most charming package. His in-your-face facts demand that we talk about it.

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