AUDREY FLACK and the Revolution of Still Life Painting

Having written on the paintings and sculptures of Audrey Flack on previous occasions, I am often compelled to ask the question: Where is Photo-Realist painting today? Has it gone the way of other trends in marketing? Or has it simply been bypassed in the art historical chain of events? I would suggest that it has gone the way of both. Before giving  further analysis, I want to state at the outset that Flack’s paintings from the late 1960s and 1970s are remarkable for several reasons, and yet have only rarely received the full credit and the appreciation they deserve. As a unique figure in this important history, Audrey Flack has broken through numerous barriers—personal, political, technical, and aesthetic—ranging from feminism in art to heightening our awareness of intimate objects in relation to history and the present. She has taken the signs of indulgence, beauty, and excess and transformed them into deeply moving symbols of desire, futility, and emancipation. The hidden affirmations of life in “Wheel of Fortune”(1977-78), the attribution of individualized beauty and assertiveness in “Marilyn: Golden Girl”(1978), and the whimsical Pop-angst of“Invocation”(1982)—all included in the current exhibition curated by Garth Greenan at Gary Snyder Project Space—carry an exactitude, bravura, immanence, and eccentricity unlike anything painted in the history of Modernism.

Audrey Flack, “Marilyn: Elegy” (1980). Cibachrome. 17 × 16 3/4 inches.

Along with Flack’s paintings, the exhibition includes color Cibachrome prints that were originally processed as 35mm slides to be used as studies projected beside the paintings in progress. Taken in collaboration with the photographer Jeanne Hamilton, these studies have never before been shown in relation to an exhibition of finished paintings. Their heraldic design and pulsating color reveals a narrative of trial and error, stops and starts, hesitations and ecstasy, coy concealments and bold fascinations within those intimate aspects of painting largely associated with women—specifically in relation to her Marilyn paintings, in which the artist portrays photographs of the actress in a context bereft of seduction, voyeurism, or sensation. Upon experiencing the profound allure generated by these works, it was only natural that some mode of demystification would begin to occur. The Photo-Realist paintings by Flack, once critically exalted for a brief period of time, have now reemerged as secular icons within the continuing course of a feminist history.

In the early 1980s, Flack decided to put aside painting in pursuit of molding and casting large figurative sculptures of women. To grasp the evolution and accomplishment of an artist like Audrey Flack, some form of critical validation is required that would privilege well-considered aesthetic decisions over the artifice and instant thrills of sensational techniques. Such arguments could only happen if serious criticism played a dialogical role in relation to art. Unfortunately, this tendency has diminished in American art ever since the global market began to take control nearly three decades ago.

Audrey Flack, “Wheel of Fortune (Vanitas)” (1977-1978). Oil over acrylic on canvas. 96 × 96 inches.

Given the extreme commercial pressures on today’s art scene, it is no wonder that cause and effect relationships have been supplanted by a type of mediated jargon out of touch with the substratum of historical or aesthetic influences that carry over from one generation to another. This happens less in terms of obvious stylistic affinities than on the level of painting’s formal construction. In Flack’s case, the reinvention of still life painting became a phenomenon that involved the viewer both aesthetically and ethically, and carried far-reaching social and political implications.

Flack’s paintings from the 1970s constitute a slow process in which she developed her surfaces through concentrated perception on an equal footing with the modulation of the paint. In retrospect, one might say that the best Photo-Realist painting of that era was as much about this conjugation of visual grammar and layered substrata as it was about opticality or the trompe l’oeil effect. In this context, Flack was able to extend a complex material reference throughout the surface of her paintings into a form of Baroque excess, as if she were absorbing the glittering abundance of visual stimuli without exempting herself from the call toward a social or political message (often symbolically concealed, as was the case with the Flemish Vanitas paintings of the 17th century). The content of excess in paintings such as “Jolie Madame” (1972) suggests a reference to Madame de Pompadour or to the previously French-occupied Indochina—what most Americans, at the time, knew as South Vietnam. Flack has always understood the importance of instilling the representation of objects with emotive power in order to infuse them with topical meaning and symbolic references, often in relation to political issues. Her views on the political ramifications of art were made clear in an unpublished statement written in early 2009, in which she criticized works that appeared in the 2008 Whitney Biennial in terms of “apathy, cynicism, and sense of failure,” and predicted that they would soon be replaced by “art that makes sense, is intelligent and embodies skill, learning, and training” as the political climate was—at the time—changing for the better. She courageously went on to say: “Hopefully with the dissolution of corrupt hedge funds, stock insider trading, and government corruption, will come the dissolution of art world nonsense and corruption. Meaning, beauty and intelligence, be it abstract or representational, will return to art.”

Flack’s sense of an integral verisimilitude is manifested in her enormous prowess in the study and execution of detail. Take any painting, whether it includes a string of pearls, a pewter mug, a bowl of fruit, a newspaper photo, a tube of lipstick, a snapshot portrait, or any combination of the above, and one soon discovers the near impossibility of suspending the whole in relation to the parts. For Flack, the parts become the whole. She is less interested in confusing truth with illusion than in capturing the integral truth of seeing. The surface of a painting is a place of hyper-visual indulgence for the viewer to penetrate and optically swim through. The miraculous truth of seeing exists not apart from painterliness but within the very depths of its structure. As suggested by “Macarena Esperanza” (1971), which introduces the catalog accompanied by the poem, “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley, Flack has always sought the emotional truth within an image, no matter what the subject matter or its connotations, whether aesthetic or political. She is an artist who saw feminism early on not simply as overt content, but in terms of style and formal inventiveness. She is a pioneering artist whose works from the ’70s are a testament to understanding—as did the writer Anaïs Nin in literature—that to advance a feminist idea in art is less about the imposition of an ideological message than about the reinvention of an implicit form. As a painter, Audrey Flack’s reinterpretation of the still life genre in Western art reasserts form as integral to the presence of time. In this way, she constructs a narrative microcosm that not only challenges our perceptions of the world but also facilitates our ability to acculturate meaning. 



Audrey Flack Paints a Picture continues at Gary Snyder Project Space through November 6.

Contributor

Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.

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