Few Australian artists working in figurative painting today have developed a style as idiosyncratic as that of Prudence Flint.
Over three decades, the Melbourne-born and based painter has built up a body of work in a distinctively modern idiom. It takes for its subject matter the female figure engaged in a variety of activities, some more workaday than others: bathing, breastfeeding, brushing teeth; cooking, reading, working; driving, flying a plane, walking on the moon. Up until 2014, Flint almost always presented her subjects in profile. Since then, she has explored three-quarter profile and other oblique angles, opting for frontal placement only when the protagonist is inverted.
She has also sharpened her focus on the subject as body, and the women who now populate her pictures are often dressed in their underwear; occasionally, they are topless or even naked. Sometimes the figure is joined by one or two other women or an animal companion; very occasionally she is seen with an infant or a naked man.
Flint’s paintings are remarkable for their sense of pictorial calm; her placid subjects often seem lost in thought. Their mood is reflective of the artist’s slow and steady studio practice. She likes to spend months on a painting if she can and her canvases are worked up from preliminary oil studies and charcoal sketches.
A seven-time Archibald finalist, Flint won the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 2004 and the Portia Geach Memorial Award in 2010. Since 2019 she has been exhibiting internationally, in London and Dublin.
In the past few years, Flint’s compositions have become more complex and self-consciously theatrical, as the bed – a common motif given her subjects’ penchant for daydreaming – has morphed into a kind of impossibly raked, colour-blocked stage, on and around which strange rituals and wordless dynamics play out.
Flint’s second exhibition with Fine Arts, Sydney, Conditions for Sprouting Seeds, brings together five large oils on linen that reveal her ongoing interest in both single- and multi-figure compositions as a way of exploring the seductive and sinister currents of the unconscious mind. This is a cool-toned fever dream – a pastel psychodrama – where the mood is impassive yet charged, an interior world of simplified forms, soft and hard, brought to life in a carefully modulated palette of sorbet hues: lemon, pink, coral, lilac, olive and teal.
In The Bath, a brown-haired woman covers her face with her hands while standing naked in a bathtub. As water streams from her body in strings that mimic the lines of grout separating the pink tiles behind, a tiny green sailboat heads towards her calves. Perched on the bath’s visible corner rim is a red apple.
It takes a while to register that the subject’s head and her hands are much smaller than they should be and more sharply defined, augmenting the monumentality of her body. Is she shielding herself from unforgiving daylight or simply wiping the water from her face? Perhaps this first canvas signals an invitation to a voyage, the figure’s pose a nod to the powers of the imagination. Eyes wide shut.
The Hang depicts a woman upside down in front of a multicoloured bed or stage, her feet tethered to something beyond the edge of the picture. She is dressed in olive briefs and a pink bra decorated with targets and is observed by two other women with triangle noses. Near the top of the stage is a white pole – a tree, possibly – with another in the background. A small brown book and a conductor’s baton can be seen on the bed.
Again, hands and heads are smaller, while the protagonist’s inverted form inevitably calls to mind Renaissance paintings of the martyrdom of Saint Peter, who was crucified upside down because he didn’t feel worthy of a Jesus-style, right-way-up crucifixion. Yet there is no hint of religious ecstasy here. She is affectless, as are her observers. Why she is hanging like that remains unclear.
Things get even more interesting in Second Punishment, whose very title suggests a narrative. On the corner of a pink and grey bed, a woman in a purple bra and burgundy skirt raises her right arm to strike the upturned bottom of a woman arranged over her knee.
Because of the way the figures are placed, the tiny, willowy hands of the one meting out the punishment find a comic echo in the dainty, and dirty, upturned feet of the one being punished. Once again, no hint of emotion.
With The Tree, Flint goes for full reverie. On a pink bed, out of which is growing the sallow-green trunk of a young tree, a woman in off-white underwear lies on her stomach, her face flushed against a white pillow. The red apple and the conductor’s baton return, joined this time by a lit candle on the night-stand.
The proportions of the foreshortened figure are exaggerated in relation to the bed, the woman’s upper half smaller than it needs to be, the lower half larger. This gives the subject an uncanny yet epic quality that serves to concentrate attention on the face, and, directly below it, the red fruit.
In the final painting, Conditions for Sprouting Seeds, a woman in a pink bra and briefs sits on the edge of another bed-stage, hands on knees, wearing slip-ons and coral socks. To her right, in the lower left-hand corner, a second woman dressed in green faces her. Behind the central figure in the upper right-hand corner, a third woman, also in her underwear, splashes water on her face from a pink bowl. Towards the back of the stage, a standing mirror reflects an unseen figure in pink and red. There is another tree, a green book and the baton.
So, what are we looking at? Flint paints (mostly) female bodies in (increasingly) private spaces, especially bedrooms. What happens in bedrooms? Sleep, if you’re lucky. Regeneration. Also, babies are made, dreams are had, plans are hatched, seeds are sprouted. Creation. Procreation.
Flint has previously expressed an interest in psychoanalysis, and these subtly surreal pictures know something about the uncanny and the unconscious, about hidden impulses and power dynamics. Half the fun is trying to discern the nature of the various relationships and whether one or other symbol is helpful in doing so.
Yet these paintings are as much about colour relationships as any of the human variety. The female bodies that populate them are substantial, sturdy, at times bordering on the cylindrical, and they need to be, to hold their ground.
Flint’s figures and their surrounds are generators of (ambiguous) meaning while also functioning as iterations of form in carefully balanced compositions that owe as much to the logic of geometric abstraction as they do to the traditions of modern figurative art. By manipulating the rules of perspective, scale and proportion, Flint activates these pictures in a way that reminds us of the conventions of picture-making, while underscoring the generative acts of creative imagination that brought them into being in the first place.
Prudence Flint: Conditions for Sprouting Seeds is showing at Fine Arts, Sydney.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "Bedroom theatre".
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