Millner on Flint

Writer and academic Jacqueline Millner sheds a critical light on the winner of the 2016 Len Fox Prize, a study of a woman washing at her basin, by Prudence Flint.

Prudence Flint Wash 2015, oil on linen. Collection Castlemaine Art Museum. Winner of 2016 Len Fox Prize, acquired. Copyright the Artist. Image supplied.

Prudence Flint paints women of substance. They may be in (strictly functional!) underwear and caught in private moments, such as in the course of everyday ablutions, but they are neither vulnerable nor objects of a prurient gaze. Rather, they hold their own in the painterly spaces the artist creates, their bodies grounded and stolid, asserting their presence and freedom to go about their daily lives.

While the female nude has been a significant genre in the canon of Western painting, by the mid-late 20th century its problematic power dynamics came to be widely recognized in the wake of feminist critiques. At first, much feminist art relished the chance to represent the distinctiveness of women’s bodies from the perspective of lived experience, with artists using their own naked bodies as political content. Yet soon came a backlash within feminism itself, skepticism of the progressive purchase of the naked female form and concern that these images could be quickly co-opted to reinforce gendered stereotypes and unequal power relations. By the late '80s, when Flint attended art school after a stint in the fashion industry, for aspiring contemporary artists the practice of painting women’s bodies was considered suspect. Yet, that is precisely what Flint chose as her subject, a commitment that continues to this day.

That Flint is able to paint women’s bodies in a way that rebuffs objectification and sexualization, but that nonetheless exudes intimacy, beauty and psychological penetration, is quite a feat, testament to her many years of formal experimentation and exploration of how women survive patriarchal culture. For one, Flint generally starts with portraits of friends, women whose complex life stories and personalities she knows well, painting at the speed of trust. She also bases her figures largely on life drawing studies, using some broader media reference material, but striving to always be true not to ‘photographic reality’ but to her own pictorial logic: a unique and convincing blend of figuration and abstraction. Flint grids up familiar domestic interiors with minimal signposts, but renders them strange and unreliable, pregnant with slippage. Her women inhabit these spaces in all their corporeality, although Flint also abstracts skin and distorts limbs and faces into smooth forms and blocks of colour that guard against abject or visceral reactions. Her very refined palette, in certain recent series pared back to subtle plays between complementary pink (flesh) and green (interior), adds to the tension between what we see and other, underlying realities.

In Wash, all these elements are in play to powerful effect. A woman in no-nonsense bra and undies washes her face in a retro bathroom basin. As spaces designed for privacy, bathrooms are sites of everyday rituals where we can let down our guard as this woman has done. Not gazing at her own reflection, she is present to her embodied self and comfortable in her own skin. Flint’s composition and formal choices ensure she fully and unselfconsciously occupies space, her solid thighs pushing against the frame. Yet, as Flint well knows, bathrooms even more than bedrooms are psychologically charged spaces, witness to our intimate bodily processes with their attendant shame and ruthless self-critique. Wash captures this complexity in a single intense moment: a woman surviving a patriarchal culture.

Jacqueline Millner
July 2020

Jacqueline Millner

Dr Jacqueline Millner is Associate Professor of Visual Arts at La Trobe University. Until recently she was Associate Professor of Art History and Theory at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney. She has published widely on contemporary Australian and international art in key anthologies, journals and catalogues of national and international galleries and museums. Her books include Conceptual Beauty: Perspectives on Australian Contemporary Art (2010), Australian Artists in the Contemporary Museum (2014), Fashionable Art (2015), and Feminist Perspectives on Art: Contemporary Outtakes (2018). She co-convenes the research cluster Contemporary Art and Feminism. She lives locally and has been a CAM Board member since 2018.

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