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ART REVIEW : Audrey Flack: Artist as Wife, Mother

TIMES ART CRITIC

Audrey Flack, judging by a retrospective exhibition of her art opening today at UCLA, is an embodiment of nature.

Flack, 60, is a New York artist only vaguely known in these parts. A notion of her work is wafted on a mental image of Photorealist paintings of rather odd subjects, such as a Spanish statue of a painted saint swathed in lace.

Such work turns out to represent but one chapter in a prolific 40-year career of boggling range. The traveling, 63-work compendium was organized by Thalia Gouma-Peterson of the J.B. Speed Art Museum of Louisville, Ky. It is accompanied by a new Abrams monograph, generously illustrated around rather flat essays. The whole carries the title “Breaking the Rules.”

In the ‘50s, when Abstract Expressionism was still fashionable, Flack worked the style with more than credible results. Recently, she’s made gilded sculpture of goddesses reflecting the revisionist Post-Modern ‘80s.

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If that doesn’t suggest breaking rules, the whole body of work does prove distinctive. Early on, personal experience sent Flack’s work in a direction with a turn at once autobiographical and universal.

As the ‘50s wore on, Flack found her marriage darkened by the birth of an autistic daughter. In trying to parse out the demands of caring for the infant, run an entry-level household in a small apartment and paint while her husband pursued his career as classical musician, she faced the classical dilemma of an artist who is also wife and mother. At this point, many women artists chuck it until the kids are grown. Flack decided to tough it out even after the birth of a second girl. She painted a series of brushy self-portraits that bring to mind something between Alice Neel and the early Larry Rivers. Flack painted herself in the act of painting and very much as a woman.

Ultimately her art is about tense contradictions between the real and the ideal.

She recently returned to self-portraiture in a series of sepia photographs that may have been inspired by Cindy Sherman.

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Flack sees herself as various elevated archetypes from Egyptian goddess to yoga. But all the images take on a tacky edge the way things do when fantasy collides with reality and you discover your lover has smelly feet. Flack’s seer is also a cheap carny fortuneteller.

This is a good exhibition to contemplate while reading Camille Paglia’s recent art-historical study “Sexual Personae.” Paglia brackets women with nature, the so-called Dionysian principle.

The County Art Museum’s exhibition of paintings by the neo-classical Italian artist Carlo Maria Mariani is pertinent too in illustrating the opposite masculine, coolly detached Apollonian principle.

Flack’s aesthetic is unmistakably that of fecund nature. She suggests its destructive side in a head of Medusa. Mainly she’s with the life force’s endless procreative experimentation. But she has to reckon with rational Apollo too. Every artist does. Too much Dionysius and you’re out of control. Too much Apollo constipates. Artists must be a bit androgynous in that way.

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Flack’s roots in classical Apollonian allegory go back to the ‘50s when she painted subjects like “The Three Graces.” But her style in the painting is earthy Expressionism. Her imagery tightened up in the ‘60s when she did a compassionate form of Social Realism depicting Mexican farm workers and nuns on civil rights marches. She hit on the tight, demanding style of Photorealism in the “Farb Family Portrait” of 1970. It’s an effective but very odd painting. It announces its photographic base twice. One of the depicted children points a camera at us. The frame is painted as if saying this is a painting of a photo of a painting. Photorealism is a funny style, so technically demanding it seems like a compulsive overcompensation practiced by artists of a basically emotive bent. Paradoxically, however, it brings out a vision of life at its most utterly pedestrian. Everything in it is tatty, commonplace and unidealized--the perfect poetry of blue-collar populist kitsch.

Yet Flack employs it to ruminate on humanity’s most exalted spiritual aspirations. Her dressing-table still lifes are full of pretty cheap precious-junk clutter. You’ll find a statue of a Buddha, or a photo of Jewish Holocaust victims. She alludes to every major religion and then slides off into mysticism.

Her largest mystical work is a portrait of an Indian philanthropist named Baba. Flack was impressed by a spirituality he expresses through a lifetime vow of silence. In contrast to the visual garrulousness of most of her work, there is an aura of stillness around his likeness against a calm seascape.

Yet even this worshipful image doesn’t escape the medium of the message. Humankind’s most sublime longings will always be nurtured by nature or demolished at her whim.

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No wonder the most physically enduring work she has made are her sculpture of nature personified as pagan goddess. There are impressive full figures in exotic costume posed like 19th-Century salon allegories to Victory or Justice. Revealing of nudity, there is yet nothing seductive about them.

Aspirations to Robert Graham’s precision is here, but despite some handsomely rendered heads, these compelling works are dogged by mixed motives. Anatomy clearly intended to be accurate is agonizingly overstated or settles into stylization. Seriously conceived figures like “Four Visions” take on the aura of movie-palace decor. Timeless icons reveal themselves as contemporary studio models.

Instead of wrecking the work, however, all these contradictions become thematic. Women may embody and symbolize nature but they are not nature. They are another of nature’s creatures, entirely subject to its laws of growth and decay.

In the end it’s nearly impossible to like or dislike Audrey Flack’s art in the ordinary sense. One admires its energy and personal authenticity, chuckles at its hectic and earthy generosity, appreciates its capacity to wring a kind of wisdom out of trying to rectify the silly and the sublime.

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It is quite a lot like nature.


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