New York

Audrey Flack

Audrey Flack is perhaps an exception to the style—surely not in her pictorial handling—but in her apparent will to use its obtuseness as a vehicle for a personal, conceivably even an autobiographical statement. True enough, her still-life objects would seem to have moist lips, and she is unequaled in giving a spitting image of frosting. But a rope of costume pearls coils, like a signature, through many of her ambitious still lifes, even one devoted to model airplane kits. And if she is beguiled by brand names like Chanel or Revlon, the articles which they label are implied as being on her vanity table. She fastens unashamedly on images that signify the good life to a woman, specifically a woman of a certain age who shows in Soho but does not share its art-world tastes at all. Cut glass, Meissen-like china and rococo silver salt shakers are her stock in trade. From her perfume bottles and decanters dangle, not Indian beads, but the kind worn by matrons who go to the Metropolitan Opera. And her palette is meant to remind you of the colors liked by those who henna their hair. Here is a pretty challenge to the esthetics of loft living, all the more since her enthusiasm for this paraphernalia is as unfashionably hot as it could be.

But more than fashion, or its antithesis, is involved in this enterprise. Audrey Flack is a political artist, of sorts. Previous subjects had been the Kennedys in Dallas and antiwar protesters. The present works react rather definitely against the motorcycle and old Chevy or pick-up truck syndrome of her male colleagues—that is, against their until now foolishly uncontested monopoly of photo-Realist icons. On one level, her switch in themes is made legible by reverting to a female orientation, anticipated by her well-known Macarena, a 17th-century Spanish Mater Dolorosa, carved and gilded by a woman. The reversion is an obvious one, and by now does not need any rhetorical support. But insisting on the crafts or domestic origins of their styles, allocated to women in this culture or others, her sister artists buoy Flack’s program. Where she differs from them is in her emphasis on consumer-hip and money, in great measure what her art is really all about. (That her boudoir, card-table, or after-party set-ups half suggest a collection of religious trinkets is not far from the atmosphere generated around a BMW carburetor.) Of course, the irony of this feminizing subject matter is that it seems to embody all those values of a middle-class maternal figure from which the artists of a generation younger than her own have fled. Her sincere vulgarity puts her in an anomalous position. She is more self-avowing and, therefore, a more pointed artist than most practitioners of the photo-Realist style, but the aggressively retrograde environment she invokes is both more deformed and fresher than in the counter-culture modes of the Soho primitivists.

In any event, and in practically every gallery, we are dealing with a nostalgic consciousness. Flack sees to it that time, in the presence of Little Ben alarm clocks and railroad pocket watches, acts like a van it as sentinel to the gorgeousness she cannot help indulging. Poker and solitaire (the latter played by a male hand in the spectator’s position), magnify the increments of loss or gain through time, reinforced by the outsized scale of the images. The leisure depicted is both jaded and hectic. Flack is a wizard at organizing ovals and diagonals, which, together with the cards, and her up-tilted grounds, recall a profaned Cubism. Indeed, if the coexistence of beer and liqueur, porcelain and pretzels, is any indication, she might be juxtaposing objects from a life at different stages of its fortune. The same, perhaps, applies to her close-up of Shiva and Winsor & Newton oil tubes.

But the Rich Art “moist water colors,” the name itself revealing her message, shows up a deficiency in her work. For an astonishing execution that distinguishes elsewhere the precise differences between the transparency of cellophane and scotch-melted ice can think of nothing better to do than flood the empty background with a garish orange in a futile effort to give color distinction to a tableau that is essentially graphically illustrative. At such a moment, her art protests too much, like that of the men in whose game she plays, and one feels the deck is loaded. Still, if a royal flush beating out a full house is not an exquisite enough pattern of desire, the prepossessing complexity of the canvas with that title is a happy substitute.

Max Kozloff