Don Fritz, in Mexico and Korea
By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero, Spring 2008

Don Fritz, Professor of Art at Santa Clara University is a hardy surfer, and a ceramic and pictorial artist. It is always a bit of a jolt for art viewers to learn that the big physical outdoorsman, Don Fritz, is the creator of these images of oh-so-sweet and innocent American kids from the fifties. The innocent childhood of the fifties was never what it seemed, however. We naively imagined that the War was over and all was now right with the world.

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Bobbie Sox, pastel drawing by Don Fritz.

Fritz’s prints, pastel drawings and paintings are laden with little boys in short pants, and girls in story-book dresses, comic book cuties, kindergarten readers’ kitties and bunnies, candy, toys and domestic niceties. Many of the messages presented have to do with gender role modeling. Boys are adventurers, future astronauts and conquering heroes. Girls are loving and future housewives. Activities such as marching military style, playing cowboys and Indians, and playing with rockets illustrate clear expectations for the boys. For the girls, sweeping, playing with baby dolls and dressing up as princesses, were good training as well. I remember playing “dress up”, myself. Training in “family values.” Boys, prepare for a good, well-paying job. Be a man. Girls, learn to be a good homemaker, submissive and sexually attractive. Get ready to get married. Reproduce.

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Fritz’s Ubber Boy, pastel on rag paper

I, myself, loved clothes and role-playing, but somehow, some future feminist was called up within me when I heard my mother say “no daughter of mine is going to wear blue jeans.” (I also recall that I never warmed up to that big baby doll I received on Christmas. Yet, I did want the beautiful fairy tale dolls.)

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Fritz’s Little Cow Boy: Perhaps he is explaining to his perfect mom why his sisters are good for lassooing.

Under the many-layered surface of Don Fritz’s drawing and paintings, one begins to notice a lot of scars. The fragments of world news, incomplete and erased figures, advertising slogans, objects of mass consumption are all small clues that this social illusion was a construction, and perhaps insidiously perpetrated by marketing media. Occasional odd juxtapositions, such as an upper dental plate, in the world of kids just losing their first baby teeth, portend a harsh reality to come. A schoolhouse on fire suggests a “trial by fire” on the young man’s road to becoming a good adult citizen. The word “Big” along with donuts and cheeseburgers suggests body image issues for a young woman.

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Layers of mixed messages in Explorer by Don Fritz

Fritz confesses to being something of a juvenile delinquent at the age most of us were knuckling under to conformity. Internal conflicts. Disappointed parents. Childhood as an outsider. Later, in high school, he discovered that athleticism was his ticket to popularity, and that being a successful insider had its merits. Still, his recollections of the stifling expectations of white Americana coupled with changing models of perfection portrayed within the media, are true and disturbing. I lived through it and it resonates with me.

Don Fritz\'s Consumption, pastel on paper

Don Fritz’s Consumption, pastel on paper

Consumption, seen in his current exhibition in Mexico, is one of the most fascinating of his drawings. In the upper left corner of this scene, nine red headed boys are wearing simian masks and facing in different directions. They appear as fates or the luck of the draw, an astrologically inauspicious configuration. Three saucy adolescent temptresses in short skirts stare defiantly or blankly at a scrawny young red headed clown in shabby and tattered gear. Our sad, wistful is clown led by mother goose on a string. A happy cow with full udder smiles at the girls. There are references to milk and a pussycat. Barely visible behind an all-American apple pie are the words “eat me”. A miniature caricature of a fat slapstick cop is rushing to the scene. Is our hapless clown about to be busted for dreaming?

The complex and fascinating works of Don Fritz currently comprise a solo show of works on paper in the Museum of Art in Mazatlan, Mexico. What will they think of this work? At the same time, Fritz is showing ceramics with works on paper, in three sites in Korea. It was as a student at UC Davis that Fritz first became involved with ceramics. Later, he became enamored of raku-fired ceramics, which is part of the multi-media work he is showing in this series of exhibitions. Fritz tells a circular story of raku technique — invented in Korea for Japanese ceramic artists, and from Japan, introduced to ceramics in the West, and then brought back to Korea and Japan for exhibition by Western artists. On Fritz’s ceramic books, his images of American fairy tales and childhood illusions continue.

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Mom, a ceramic book by Don Fritz

Contact: <d.fritz@scu.edu>

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