The irony of Caitlin Frown’s surname should not be lost. In the often serious, self-important world of contemporary fine art, Frown creates clay and papier-mâché sculptures that are rich in whimsy and levity. It’s work that smiles back at you.
Case in point: At Arts Warehouse’s group exhibition “Pink” in Delray Beach earlier this year, Frown proved to be its foremost jester, finding subversive humor in scenes from everyday life. “The Ladies Room” is a roomsize installation shrunken into a miniature mockup. The pink-walled restroom offers a parody of society’s idea of femininity, but it’s also a deceptively scuzzy place: Look closely at this voyeuristic model, and ants and spiders scurry about.
In “Opossums Love to Gossip,” the sculpted title animal, a beastly yenta of sorts, dons an old-lady nightgown, chatting on the phone in her old-lady abode, with old-lady trinkets gathering dust on shelves. “Everyone has encountered someone maybe like that—gossipy, looking out the window at their neighbors,” says Frown, 29, who lives in West Palm Beach. “So it’s a trope we can all relate to, combined with a cute, fun aspect.”
The artist is fond of wordplay; sometimes, the titleof a piece will come to her before its creation. Staged on local beachfront, “Mermanager” depicts a fabled merman sporting the anonymous garb of a regional manager, his coffee mug and office accouterments spread out on the sand. At the time of this interview, Frown was developing a scene of gators at a bowling institution. Its title, of course, is “Alligator Alley.”
“I’ve had a staunch policy since college to write everything down,” she says. “Whether it’s good, bad or anything in between, I just write it down, and maybe revisit it later. I have notebooks from several years.”
Frown has cited the Czech stop-motion filmmaker Jan Švankmajer as an influence on her art. David Lynch’s early shorts come to mind too, along with Roz Chast’s New Yorker cartoons, with their wry reflections on urban mundanity—all of which fall outside typical gallery paradigms. “I often feel out of place in more traditional fine art spaces,” Frown says. “I feel I’m on the outside looking in.”
A native Minnesotan, Frown grew up largely in Naples, leaving Florida only to attend the Art Institute of Boston, where she graduated with a major in Illustration and a minor in Fine Arts. Considering both the humor and the sense of childlike nostalgia that permeates much of her work, it’s no surprise that Frown flirted with becoming a children’s-book author.
It’s hard not to grin when spending some time in her home studio, a compendium of completed and in-progress works and fastidiously organized supplies, many purchased from the nonprofit Resource Depot, where she keeps a day job. These include a tower of compartments, each labeled with their contents: “doll arms,” “animal eyes and lashes,” miniaturized books, lamps and rugs. “There’s something very soothing about collecting tiny things,” she says.
They may see the light of day in one of Frown’s forthcoming pieces, a shrunken apartment complex—refashioned from an advent calendar from Aldi—with all of its windows open, and a giant, voyeuristic doll peeking inside. (One of her two opinionated cats, which she refers to as her “assistants,” knocked down the “apartment” during our interview; from Frown’s reaction, it wasn’t the first time.)
This, too, is inspired by memories from her life. “When I lived in Massachusetts, I would take walks a lot at night, and so many people would leave their blinds and curtains open,” she says. “To get that momentary glimpse of someone else’s life, and then feel what they feel for just a moment is so fascinating. I wanted to represent that in a way.”
Frown has been selected for 15 exhibitions since 2013, including one solo show, “It’s So Nice to See You,” at Resource Depot in 2022. She was most recently shown this past fall at the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County. Wherever she appears next, expect her arresting sense of humor to be front and center. In a previous life, she even toyed with being a standup comedian. “I’ve been very shy, so I don’t think it would have worked,” she says. “If I can make people laugh from the sidelines, that’s something I enjoy. Especially in serious times and serious situations, the ability to laugh is important.”