LAFAYETTE — Lynda Frese’s philosophy and photography haven’t always been appreciated in foreign places. Or at home either, for that matter.
But thanks to her persistence, a show spanning 40 years of her work will open in mid-February at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum. It's also because of her stubborn streak that the female art instructors at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette get paid the same as men.
“No one wanted to stand with me then,” she recalled. “But they thank me now.”
Retired after a 30-year career as the university’s first art professor emerita, the exhibit is a retrospective entitled "Lynda Frese: Holy Memories & Earthly Delights." It showcases her early work to the present as curated by Laura Blereau.
Divided into eight sections, the work is not displayed chronologically, but mixed thematically. For example, “Dream World & The Subconscious” has a lot of interesting bodies. "Vessels," which have always been symbols for the female, contains work from three different decades.
“We don’t want to impose preconceptions on the show,” said Frese, casually sipping coffee in the museum atrium. “Laura looked at all the work in my studio while I went to Italy. She spent days in there.”
Over a third of the exhibition is early works from California, but Blereau saw significance in Frese’s younger phase, when many of her pieces were made with multiple negatives in the darkroom on gelatin silver paper. “She thought it was the key to the work that came after,” Blereau said.
Images of religious relics and veneration remain, and their shadowy figures and deserted cathedrals persist in later collages. A lexicon of images from the past, mysterious and deep, recur in present work.
According to Frese, the 70 pieces in the show have a lot of entry points. In "Arugula Icon," the plant has halos around it and takes precedence over the human presence.
“The heretical part is the replacement of saints with plants,” she said. ’If we’re not worshipping the natural world, we should. It’s what’s keeping us alive. What if we have a different point of prayer?
“Art," she added, "is the opportunity for you to really understand another human being.”
A relatively recent change is her use of egg tempura, and local pictures have organic material in them as well.
Frese focuses on the pigments and where they’re mined, and that element is overlaid on her photographic collages with varying degrees of transparency, which may not be obvious to the viewer. Frese has visited the caves in Dordogne and quarries in southern France, and the pigments in "Subterranean Reds" come from the same quarries used by cave artists in prehistoric times.
Frese said she has collected between 80 and 90 pigments from different places in the world, including clay from Louisiana creeks.
“There’s something compelling about layers of history,” she said.
"The Singer," a riff on icon Bob Dylan’s infamous smoking pictures, is juxtaposed with the Basilica in Assisi. Frese has been traveling to that pilgrimage site for five years.
“People can enter any way they like into those pictures," the artist said. "He (Dylan) is a kind of cipher. A perfect mask.”
Frese also sings, and says the work is autobiographical.
“St. Francis was the original rebel boy,” she said. “Pilgrims are searching, we’re all pilgrims. We’re all lost.”
Her early 1970s feminism remains steadfast. A catalog will be available, with contributions by Blereau, with a discourse on the feminist aspect by Mary Ann Wilson, UL-Lafayette's distinguished professor of English and Women’s Studies, and photography critic Alejandro Malo.
“People are hungry for worlds that are not patriarchal worlds. They’ll be surprised by what was selected, the intimacy and eroticism of the early work," she said, adding with a laugh. "There’s a lot of nudity.”
Lynda Frese: Holy Memories & Earthly Delights
A retrospect of the artist's work
WHEN: Through May 19. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: The Hilliard University Art Museum, 710 E. St. Mary Blvd., on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus
ADMISSION: $5, $4 for seniors, $3 for students
INFO: hilliardmuseum.org or call (337) 482-2278