"I have been called a photo-realist," says artist Audrey Flack, but if that means "one who simply copies a photograph, I am not a photo-realist. I prefer the term super-realist. I exaggerate reality . . ."
In her show of works on paper now at Phoenix II, the term photo-symbolist seems to make more sense.
Flack--like other photo-realists--uses a photograph as the source of her art. But they are her own meticulously composed, brilliantly hued, still lifes and table-top narratives that glisten with glass beads and baubles, perfume bottles, fruit and flowers--all heavy with symbolic meaning. Like other photo-realists, she projects these images onto a canvas and paints them in with an airbrush, resulting in an uncanny illusionism, but to the larger purpose of making a statement about the state of man--or woman.
For most photo-realists, photos serve chiefly as sketches. Flack uses this system, but in the process, makes photographs that are works of art themselves. All the photographs that make up the bulk of this show were taken before her paintings, of which only one small self-portrait is on view here. Since we cannot see what may be gained in the painted enlargements (they are often 8 feet by 8 feet), the best of these photographs make us wonder what their purpose could be, since the content seems to be within the photographic image itself.
"I approve of sentiment, nostalgia and emotion," writes Flack in an impressive monograph that accompanies her show. And her images are loaded with these things. Most intriguing of all are a series of "Vanitas" pictures based on 17th-century northern European still lifes, which sought to remind viewers that life was fleeting, and that, to quote Ecclesiastes, ". . . all is vanity."
To communicate her thoughts, Flack retains in this overstuffed still-life format some of the same symbols used by the old masters--the young blossom and wilted flower, a burning candle, a watch, an hourglass, a small porcelain skull--all marking the passage of time. "Time to Save," the photograph reproduced here, is typical of this series for which the placement, lighting and actual photographing took a day or more.
"Leonardo's Lady" reproduces a painting by Leonardo surrounded by accouterments of a dressing-table top, a mirror, a jeweled bauble, a watch, a pink silk rose and a perfume bottle. The vivid color and stark light somehow rouse the sense of the "Lady" as a real contemporary woman. Most poignant and disturbing is her famous "World War II," which juxtaposes the faces of people just rescued from a concentration camp with a tray of sweets. I have always found this image offensive; in the context of the show, it seems to make jarring sense.
Also on view at Phoenix II are spray paintings by Alexander Russo, which lay claim to "Archetypal Themes," but are, in fact, empty at the core. These paintings are made from acrylic paint sprayed in rather unattractive colors around cutout shapes such as figures, leaves and mountain forms, which he moves and sprays again. Though Russo is an accomplished and well-established artist, this particular tack does little more than recall the splatter paintings children make in kindergarten.
Included are some black-and-white evocations of Italy and the Roman Forum, a subject that Russo was handling well back in the '60s. It continues to be his forte.
Both shows continue through March 26 at Phoenix II, 1875 I St. NW (International Square). Hours are Monday and Saturday, 11 to 4; Tuesday through Friday, 11 to 6.