April 10, 2011

The Artist and The Icons

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“Art is like making love — you can’t have someone else do it for you,” said Audrey Flack last Thursday, at the Johnson Museum, speaking in conjunction with the show currently on view, iCON: Consuming the American Image, curated by the History of Art Majors Society (HAMS). Flack’s lithograph, entitled Macarena, inspired by the life-size Spanish Baroque sculpture of the Virgin Mary by Luisa Roldan, is featured in the show, which runs until June 12, 2011. The subject of her print is the original Icon, the Virgin Mary, as religious object of veneration. I had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Flack, an icon in her own right, throughout the day, starting with a chance meeting at Carriage House at brunch to a dinner hosted by the Museum for HAMS members after her talk.

Her presentation was punctuated by personal anecdotes, including a run in with an inebriated Jackson Pollock, and notes on sculpture and painting. Known primarily for her Photorealist paintings, Flack has in the last twenty-five years moved to sculpture, producing monuments for public commissions across the country. She explained her artistic shift from her beginnings as an Abstract Expressionist, through her Photorealist period to her present-day work as a sculptor, stopping every so often to elaborate on the story behind the commission or various visual tricks, both hidden and seen, that are so unique to her work as both a painter and a sculptor.

In keeping with the theme of the show, her work is undoubtedly iconic, held in the collection of such preeminent museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, and even internationally in collections as far reaching as Australia. As the only prominent female artist in the groundbreaking Photorealist movement, Flack’s compositions are largely focused on  feminized still-lifes, reminiscent in some respects of Dutch still-life painting, while the intensity of her palette is more of a contemporary take on the Baroque. Her assemblages are often overtly self-referential and allude to a decidedly female presence while confronting the temporality of life, a subject so commonly associated with the vanitas still-lifes of the seventeenth century. Her compositions invite iconographical interpretation and reconcile the gap between formalism and abstraction. As such, her work is an ongoing exploration not only of the visual experience but the personal as well. Preferring the term “Super Realist,” Flack’s work brings into almost tangible focus a hyper reality of recognizable imagery that transcends both time and place.

Flack’s work is perhaps most remarkable for her focus on the female as a monumental figure, a subject which permeated not only her talk but also our discussion at dinner. She graciously thanked the members of HAMS, all of whom happen to be women, not only for curating the show, but for doing art history by reexamining if not redefining the history of art, a discipline which notoriously excludes various minorities, including women. Ms. Flack’s charge to us as History of Art majors, but also as women, is to reconsider the standard of art and beauty that we have come to accept — to right the unrealistic proportions of women’s bodies depicted in art and, similarly, to address those women whose rightful place in the history of art has been long overlooked and often underemphasized. During her talk, Flack spoke not only about her own artistic accomplishments, struggles and processes, but about several women artists, familiar and obscure, encouraging us as students to learn about those women that the history of art has neglected.

Audrey Flack is certainly a feminist, but, as she said in the beginning of her talk, “I don’t hate men; I love men. And the best men I know are great feminists.” In conversation, she is more a proponent of equality than misandry. Flack celebrates women while addressing her strengths and sorrows, a subject that runs throughout the iCON show and negotiates both our perceptions of women and our representations of women in or as art. Flack believes in the literal and metaphorical power of art, writing the following in her book, Art & Soul:  Notes On Creating:

“I believe in art.

I do not believe in the ‘art world’ as it is today.

I do not believe in art as commodity.

Great art is in exquisite balance.  It is restorative.

I believe in the energy of art, and through the use of that energy, the artist’s ability to transform his or her life, and by example, the lives of others.

I believe that through art, and through the projection of transcendent imagery, we can mend and heal the planet.”

Audrey Flack treats art as a calling, and making art as a compulsion. She makes icons and is an icon herself. Her talk on Thursday was an intimate glimpse into the life of an artist who is as relevant today as she ever was, and, as tied to the future as she always will be.

Original Author: Katie Kremnitzer