Dick and Jane recast CSMA exhibit by pop artist Don Fritz examines what defines the sexes

by Molly Tanenbaum

Many say it's the clothes that make the man. But for Santa Cruz artist Don Fritz, it's our childhood toys that shape us.

Fritz's work, which recently arrived at the Community School of Music and Arts, is a metaphor for growing up surrounded by social cues that teach children how to be masculine or feminine.

Colorful toys and cartoon figures float throughout Fritz's works in what seems at first like a disorganized hodgepodge. In one painting, "Future," objects like a frog, a turtle, candy and a rocket surround a young boy. Bold words and phrases like "space cadet," "satellite in orbit," and "electric" hang around him on a creamy white background.

The artist grew up with two older sisters in the 1950s, and learned early lessons about gender through reading "Dick and Jane" primers and playing with toys.

"I played with guns and all that. My sisters were really into dolls," Fritz said. "I remember the first time I played with dolls, my dad told me I shouldn't do that because that's what girls did."

Like other pop artists, Fritz employs familiar "low-brow," Disney-esque images to make his art accessible to the average viewer.

Each work is like a puzzle, and it is the viewer's task to figure out why, not where, each piece belongs. Analyzing Fritz's work is similar to looking back on your own life and piecing together the events and experiences that shaped you.

The complexity in how Fritz represents the formation of identity stems from his own upbringing and his education.

Before gravitating towards art, Fritz studied psychology and sociology in college, which infused his work with ideas about how the individual relates to society. His characters — young, naive cartoons — are the sum of their surroundings. But behind the blatant imagery — the bright colors, simple figures and bubble words — lurk subversive underlying messages and images.

For example, two of Fritz's large mixed-media paintings hanging side by side in CSMA's Mohr Gallery portray a typical boy and girl: young and innocent, surrounded by objects that fill their lives. But drawn in layers beneath the main characters of each piece hides the phrase, "Guilty as sin."

That sinister phrase sparks questions: What are the meanings of all the symbols that surround the children? What have the little boy and girl done wrong?

"As an adult, I'm kind of unraveling the experience I had as a child," Fritz said.

He spent his early years living in Germany while his father worked on top-secret rockets for the military. Upon moving to the United States , Fritz's box full of toys disappeared. Only recently did he realize that the loss of his childhood toys influenced the kind of art he creates.

"I was thinking of 'Citizen Kane' and Rosebud," he said. "I thought, 'Is that why I'm doing this?' They say we never grow up. It's just our toys that change."

Fritz has lived in Santa Cruz since the 1970s and currently teaches art classes at UC Santa Cruz and at Santa Clara University . He has shown his work throughout the country and internationally, particularly in Asia .

Other works in his CSMA exhibit are ceramic sculptures, the most startling of which is an enormous head of Pinocchio, with a hat so pointy it looks like it's about to pierce the ceiling. In several of his ceramic pieces, Fritz used a technique called Raku firing which renders a dark-metallic, aged look.

But his most thought-provoking pieces are the large, mixed-media paintings with layers upon layers of symbol and meaning. To Fritz, the more time he takes to draw in background figures, erase them and add layers and depth, the more successful the work.

"It's really important to me that things are erased and painted out," Fritz said. "It needs to be that way or else it wouldn't be the experience of what it's like to be human. I want a psychological experience in the work."

E-mail Molly Tanenbaum at INFORMATION: What: Selected works by Don Fritz

Where: Community School of Music and Arts' Mohr Gallery, 230 San Antonio Circle , Mountain View

When: Through May 26 Hours: Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. ; Saturday 9 a.m.

to 3 p.m. For more info: call (650) 917-6800 or visit

This is a review of Don Fritz' show, "CIRCA 1950"

Artists raised in '50s
America take on era's clean image

By Victoria Dalkey -- Bee Art Correspondent

Northern California artists Don Fritz and Marnie Spencer grew up in the 1950s, when children were encouraged to believe that life was as simple as a Dick and Jane book.

"Look," says Dick to Jane as he launches a toy airplane in Spencer's "Blue Print for a Police Society." "See it go. See it go up.""Up, up, up," says Jane.

Never mind where the plane might be going. Or that, after your reading lesson, your teacher would ask you to climb under your desk and cradle your head in your arms. Never mind that you would inevitably hear an airplane going over while you were in that position.

It was the 1950s, and life for children was supposed to be carefree. They were supposed to obey the rules, do well in school and grow up to be good citizens. The boys were supposed to go to work and the girls were supposed to stay at home and be good mommies. They were supposed to live happily ever after.

Now in their 50s, Fritz and Spencer return to the imagery of their childhoods in a joint show at Julie Baker Fine Art in Grass Valley , creating nostalgic works that often have a dark edge. The prevailing conformity of the Eisenhower era, the Cold War and its nuclear threat cast their shadows on these wry homages to the pop culture of the 1950s and '60s. While Spencer veers between honest reverence for the past and satirical jabs at period culture, Fritz's ironic exhumations of childhood are raucous forays into the underlying sex and violence of American culture fueled by feelings of lost innocence.

A mixture of anger and cupidity underlies Fritz's paintings and ceramics. His rambunctious boys and winsome schoolgirls romp in multilayered playgrounds of bright and partially submerged images that range from bunnies and chicks to houses that burst into flame.

In "Propriety," a girl in a polka-dotted dress is all sugar and spice, surrounded by sweet baby animals. Her counterpart, "Jack," is a nimble knave, boldly grinning under the words "girls, girls, girls." The glossy surfaces of the works are broken by the ghosts of images - an ice cream cone, a cherry pie - that linger in the mind as reminders of past pleasures and passages of Japanese calligraphy that serve as visual punctuation marks. At first glance, the slick paintings seem to be simple paeans to childhood, but on closer inspection one senses a worm at the core of these idyllic visions that makes the images seem somehow monstrous.

Though Fritz's children are kitsch icons of innocence, they have a disturbingly sexual edge as they play out gender stereotypes with a vengeance. The underlying sexuality becomes blatant in "Little Sister," in which a young girl pulls off her shirt as her older sister strikes a studied pose in her pert '50s frock.

In "Sci-Fi Cowboy," child's play turns dangerous, as Fritz's little cowboy is assailed by atomic rockets and robots, drawing his gun under a metaphoric mushroom cloud of anxious images and messages.

Fritz's ceramic wall-pieces and "book-ends" (books that ironically can't be opened) extend his images of children, animals and burning structures into three dimensions. They're well-made, but with the exception of a marvelous "Dunce Cap," with an image of Jiminy Cricket, and a surprisingly slender "Humpty-Dumpty," they are less intriguing than his paintings.

Spencer's work is more varied than Fritz's. Large-scale, collagelike images of alphabet blocks, license plates and door locks are meticulously rendered with an almost trompe l'oeil quality. Done on thick paper, they have a strong physical presence that doesn't come off in reproductions. They really need to be seen to be appreciated.

Other images juxtapose thrift-store finds - doll heads and hands, postage stamps and old postcards, for example - in nostalgic images that fascinate with intricate detail and skillful orchestration of color and composition. The strongest, "Failed Romantic," takes on a satirical social edge, suggesting seamy motel liaisons in a patchwork quilt of images of Indians, gambling, broken dolls and a ventriloquist's dummy.

Departing from her busy collagelike works, "Blue Print for a Police Society" is an expanse of blue with toy airplanes scattered atop plans for military aircraft. With a Dick and Jane scene delicately drawn in the upper right corner, it's a cool, ironic piece that moves away from pop art into postmodern territory.

While Fritz, who received his master's of fine arts from the University of California , Davis , in the late 1970s, has shown widely in California and Japan , Spencer is a relative newcomer to the Northern California gallery scene. Though she studied with Elmer Bischoff, Karl Kasten and others at the University of California , Berkeley , she took a hiatus from making art for many years while raising a family. Her first show at Julie Baker is a strong, if belated, debut.