These Artists Are Making Picture Frames Part of Their Work
The picture frame has a long history of underappreciation. For centuries, collectors and museums treated frames as afterthoughts to the artworks they contained, swapping them out according to changing tastes or to match their immediate surroundings. The New York frame dealer Eli Wilner recounted that even in the 1980s, major galleries gave him their unwanted antique frames for free.
But for many contemporary artists, the picture frame has become an integral part of their art. Working across a range of disciplines, including ceramics, woodcarving, drawing, and assemblage, many of these artists share a desire to literally reshape boundaries—whether between painting and sculpture, art and life, or spiritual and secular space.
Bay Area painter Roy De Forest, who passed away in 2007, took an idiosyncratic, highly personal approach to art-making, one populated by technicolor dogs and airplanes with human heads. These figures often showed up in his frames as well; in Untitled (1996), the hat the subject inside the painting holds in his hand reappears at the top of the frame.
Although he painted onto his picture frames as early as the 1950s, De Forest had begun making sculptural additions to them by the mid-’80s, according to gallerist Brian Gross, president of Brian Gross Fine Art where “Roy De Forest: Selected Works” is on view through August 29th. These sculptural elements included thumbtacks, coat hooks, and miscellaneous knobs he ordered from craft catalogues.
“I believe that making frames was a logical extension of his desire to build,” Gross told Artsy. The artist once told Gross that he initially wanted to be a sculptor, but focused on painting because it took up less space. “Roy grew up on a farm where he learned to make everything he wanted to play or experiment with, so he had a long tradition of making objects,” said Gross.
A great experimenter with materials—beginning with the assemblages he made from his mother’s used wooden spoons as a broke art student—De Forest’s frames reflect his layered, mixed-media approach to painting. “He loved materials, and when he died, I would say there was the equivalent of 10 art stores in his studio,” Gloria Marchant, De Forest’s widow and overseer of his estate, recalled in a 2020 conversation hosted by Venus Over Manhattan.
Leah Ke Yi Zheng, Green Screen, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
This embrace of material experimentation, however, did not always make for the most functional frames. In 2019, a guest on Antiques Roadshow who brought in two works by De Forest for appraisal told the hosts she had removed the original, artist-painted frames because she noticed they were tarnishing the paper. (Fortunately, the collector still had the original frames at home.)
At the same time that De Forest and other artists affiliated with Funk Art were making psychedelic work in California, another group of painters in Chicago was experimenting with shaped canvases and using sculptural frames as compositional devices. The vibrant, wacky work of artist group the Hairy Who, which includes Suellen Rocca, Jim Falconer, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Art Green, and Karl Wirsum, was influenced by Surrealism, folk art, and an interest in moving between fine art and vernacular culture. Rethinking the standard presentation of a painting was part of that interest.
Nutt’s use of frames in particular was a touchstone for Chicago-based painter Leah Ke Yi Zheng. Zheng’s “Framework” series is composed of two-sided wooden panel paintings that recall some of art history’s earliest framed paintings—Italian panel paintings with frames that, like Byzantine icons, were carved out of the same piece of wood as the image. Surrounding renderings of curtains, green screens, and the texture of the wood itself, Zheng’s machine-carved borders often have more detail than the works’ subtly painted central areas. “I tried to change the center of the painting from the middle to the periphery to the edges,” Zheng told Artsy.
For photographers, too, frames have been a site of innovation. The work of acclaimed Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj is a riot of color and pattern, often featuring posed portraits of subjects surrounded by frames of shelving that holds Lego pieces, tea tins, cans of mackerel, and other bright mass-produced objects and goods. Hajjaj was influenced by Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, whose joyous black-and-white photographs both captured and elevated daily life in Bamako. Many of Sidibé’s wedding and baby portraits are set into glass frames with colorful flowers. Made in collaboration with a Bamako glass artist, these family keepsakes become objects that more closely resemble icons.
Photography is often the starting point for Stephanie Temma Hier, who bases her paintings on images sourced from stock photos and the internet, before building sculptural ceramic forms around them. Each image has no apparent relationship to its frame, although there is often an unsettling resemblance between the subjects. In Invitation to Bruise (2020), painted bunches of bananas are bordered by sculpted, fruity-looking yellow ears; in You Aren’t Close Enough (2021), suction cup-covered bodies of octopi have surprising formal resonances with the figs and strings of pearls on its surrounding frame. Playing with the way we encounter images on a screen—as part of a flat window into digital space—Hier’s frames seem to emphasize that these artworks are tangible objects that exist outside of the virtual world.
The potential of frames to bridge two-dimensional media and sculpture also interests Alicia Adamerovich, though her path to her distinctive frames was much more accidental. While visiting her parents in western Pennsylvania, she decided to make frames for a pair of drawings, Horn (2019) and Tableau (2019), with her father, an experienced woodworker. “I had no money to get anything framed or to buy a frame, but I had wood,” Adamerovich told Artsy.
The experiment stuck. She had been drawing furniture at the time, and making frames allowed her to continue exploring how light and shadow can transform a depiction of an object into an emotional landscape. Adamerovich’s drawing-sculpture hybrids seem to hail from another universe where the boundaries between organic and human-made, animate and inanimate, and picture and frame no longer exist. They would be at home among the human candelabras in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.
Animism and anthropomorphism are also central to the work of artist Guadalupe Maravilla, who works across sound, ritual, installation, and sculpture to both examine his personal history and amplify the voices of immigrant communities. Maravilla’s recent show at P.P.O.W, “Seven Ancestral Stomachs,” included a new group of paintings framed in a stiff, spikey, white material.
Each piece was the fruit of a collaboration between the artist and Daniel Vilchis, a fourth-generation Mexican retablo painter. The devotional images at the center of each work, which were commissioned to offer thanks for a blessing, are also often ex-votos that depict the harrowing situation that the subject survived. After Vilchis paints each metal plate according to careful instructions, Maravilla embeds the image in an otherworldly frame. The exact process behind the surrounding material is a secret he hopes to patent one day, but he did reveal that it’s cotton-based and made in a microwave.
Most of the images in “Seven Ancestral Stomachs” document events in Maravilla’s life, including surviving cancer, as seen in EXVOTO Kambo (2021). The artist also commissioned retablos based on experiences of community members of the Church of the Good Shepherd, where Maravilla volunteers, like being held in ICE detention. If a piece sells, he shares the profits with the subject. “It’s really important for me to create these micro-economies around my work,” Maravilla told Artsy.
Maravilla’s frames are part of the material evidence that shows how each artwork came into being. In addition to the spikey cotton material, he has also created frames out of objects gathered from markets along the route he took as an eight-year-old child travelling alone from El Salvador to the United States. “Because someone else’s hand is in it, I wanted to have my own hand in it,” said Maravilla.
But those found materials also point to the concerns of Maravilla’s practice as a whole, where art is not a commodity made in isolation, but a spiritual project and a tool for generating wealth for immigrant communities. In his work, a frame does not simply mark a border, but also acts as a bridge between secular cultural institutions and spaces of collaborative healing.