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[whitespace] Don Fritz Boy's Life: The icons of the past haunt Don Fritz's ironic salutes to American kitsch.

On the Fritz

Surfing the '50s for images, Don Fritz adds his personal spin to a new show at the San Jose Museum of Art

By Christina Waters

PERENNIAL SURFER, aging boy and collector of Mexican folk art Don Fritz and his artwork reflect each other's mythic potential. An instructor at UC-Santa Cruz and fixture on a variety of local fringe scenes, Fritz is one of the featured artists in the new San Jose Museum of Art show Piecing It Together: A Visual Journal.

Bursting with the pop iconography of American postwar fantasies, the artist's two-decade romance on the back streets of American kitsch and paranoia teases the collective unconscious. His symbolic signature invariably showcases wayward children frolicking under a nuclear shadow. They're cute, naughty and highly apocalyptic.

The plunder of his own boyhood, Fritz' work was an obvious choice for the current exhibition devoted to the ways that artists reweave cultural archetypes into their own obsessions.

A few blocks from the beach in Santa Cruz, Fritz' new two-story studio showcases large mixed-media works destined for the San Jose show. A little girl poses fetchingly in her new party dress and patent leather shoes. An atomic bomb goes off in the background, while floating slogans, e.g. "Cool" and "Space Patrol" hover menacingly around her heels. Puppies, baby chicks, rabbits and beach balls chew up the scenery in pastel hues while houses and trucks go up in flames.

Fritzland is a world of Leave It to Beaver suburban perfection, whose squeaky clean facade is always stained with foreboding. Paradise Lost--filtered through Walt Disney and the Manhattan Project--haunts Don Fritz' rock & roll imagination. The results are as disturbing as they are sexy.

A giant ceramic revolver sitting on the studio floor next to a stack of vintage grammar school textbooks gives away some of the game. A torrent of children's toys in primary-colored plastic threatens to overflow the shelves of his loft. Fritz' latest work displays an intricate layering of text and images, suggesting childhood anxieties lurking just inside adult attitude. This sense of a history embedded--but not too deeply--within the present forms the hypnotic text of Don Fritz' work.

Beginning vigorously with charcoal on paper, Fritz samples his favorite motifs--naughty children, rockets, Japanese calligraphy, cocktail-lounge signage. Glazing this surface (the current crop of work tends toward 3-by-4-foot dimensions) with acrylic, he begins painting over selected areas. Then certain areas--bows, shoes, skirts--are worked with oil paint in rich colors.

Each layer is transparent so that the interior flirts with visibility. He works a surface over and over, each time leaving faint traces of history peeking through, like a page in a personal diary. When finished and sealed with a high-gloss polymer fixative, the painted and glazed surfaces shimmer with childhood ghosts. The buried child within is still visible behind the sassy façade of ad slogans and adult-movie teasers.

THE TECHNIQUE of erasing and reworking, building up layers of images and words that seem to fade in and out of focus--like all artistic epiphanies--was discovered completely by accident. But the effect is both original and haunting.

In Fritz' mixed-media painted surfaces, children are large, their rounded contours filled with larger-than-life (and certainly larger than mom and dad) potency. Like the artist himself, these works oscillate between the everyday and the fictive. "I'm not sure it's even about childhood," he muses, "After all, childhood itself is an adult fantasy. We make up all this stuff." False innocence, or just precocious malevolence--Fritz' children resonate with dream world hopes and fears. The edginess saturating each artwork is absolutely intentional.

"The mystery of what's in the shadows--that's what interests me," Fritz says, grinning. "I like to look at the metaphysical underpinnings of basic ideas like food, shelter, home. And I just keep transforming, working the changes and transforming the ideas some more."

Rich and luminous, the new two-dimensional works display an idiosyncratic character that perfectly matches the off-beat raku glazes Fritz likes for his ceramic books and toy sculptures. The idea for a ceramic book appealed to the boyish artist's impish sense of humor. "You can't open it," he laughs, running his hand over a scarlet book cover, "so you're free to make up your own story."

The story told by Don Fritz' brooding children and their incessant pets and ominous schoolyards is a hothouse of personal re-invention. In Fritz' icons, fairy tales and explosions, the '50s exist in a volatile state. You can read his adult explorations and revisions of that personal mythology in each vivid image.

'Piecing It Together: A Visual Journal' shows through Jan. 10 at the San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St., San Jose. (408.294.2787)

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From the September 30-October 6, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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