When the dust settles and we look back on this moment in history, what will be the collective images that will haunt us? Perhaps a photograph of an empty Times Square, save for red tulips gently bowing in grey planters or a lone paper bag blowing in the wind. Or a scene of medical personnel, covered in gowns and masks, visibly shaken by the crush of death and hospital chaos. Perhaps it could be the miles of lined up cars waiting to get some meager bags of food. Or the four walls of our own homes as we hunker down in quarantine. It could be the image of flamingoes taking over parks in Mumbai or lions wandering the streets in South Africa, as animals begin to appear in droves given the absence of humans. Or maybe a snapshot from earth’s satellites, showing a decline of air pollution as human life has come to a virtual standstill. And all of these poignant images stand in stark relief against a kaleidoscopic backdrop of wildfires, floods, receding glaciers, deforestation, endangered species, and supercharged hurricanes. Our world is a complex, scary place right now. And meaningful, powerful images have a way of lodging in the brain, repeatedly and spontaneously making themselves known and providing a momentary portal through which to more clearly view our present lives or our past. Words, in contrast, seem to require a slower conscious recall that lose their power by virtue of the time it takes to think about them. At least that’s the way it seems to work for me. Since images form the basis of our mental thought and our creativity, it’s no wonder that they have the ability to capture the power of the moment or to transport us to a past that is impossible to put into words.
Mindy Flexer’s artwork evocatively conveys the intertwined issues at the forefront of our current reality. Of course, there are a multitude of ways to capture the pathos, the terror, and the grief of this viral catastrophe with images. And art can certainly express a reality that lies beyond words. But is there a way to more gently hover around the perimeters of our current desperation rather than depicting it head on and forcing us to relive it? Is there a way to capture the incredulity and helplessness of those watching the mounting deaths in a way that can provide some semblance of comfort? Can we excavate hope among the rubble of our present circumstance? Flexer’s beautiful images of flight seem to me to show the people we have lost being carried away by angels. In Learning to Fly, there are people drifting in the sky among origami birds, as onlookers are standing alone in boats below. These origami birds, to me like doves offering peace or angels accompanying those lost on their new afterlife journey, seem to be leading the way. It seems to be a magical, achingly beautiful, heartbreaking depiction of this historical moment. Similarly, in The Two of You, a figure of an older child seems to be watching an adult fly away accompanied by birds. The colors are subdued, and the sky seems to be taking on pink hues as if this is occurring in tandem with sunrise. There is such poignancy in these paintings, as if they’re reaching out to our battered, grief-stricken souls and pointing us toward comfort and peace in the midst of tragedy.
Though her work was completed prior to the pandemic and there are other compelling interpretations, to me these works seem to speak directly to the heart of our current global viral catastrophe. Letting Go to Hold On depicts people gently floating in the air amid origami cranes, as if they are easing into their newfound levity and freedom. Here the colors are stunningly vibrant and life affirming. And the title captures irony. Perhaps it is a message of peace in the midst of suffering. Perhaps it speaks to the notion of impermanence in a world which on a daily basis seems so stable and static. And this theme of impermanence, as not only signifying death but also transformation, is one that inhabits much of her work. Several years ago, Flexer experienced the death of a close friend and the birth of a family member simultaneously; this synchronicity sparked her interest in depicting people coming and going, a part of the grand scheme of time that showcases this notion of impermanence. And the pandemic, a massive exodus of fellow human beings from our midst, is certainly emblematic of those comings and goings. As Flexer notes: “The pandemic is this reality on steroids.” Perhaps then, this painting could also be depicting the potential for human transformation as we sit on the brink of a new reality, made necessary by this unprecedented existential crisis.
Spiral Blue similarly captures this magical realist notion of groups of people floating in the sky among birds. And birds, which symbolically are associated with death and calamity, while for others ironically signify life and longevity, seem to be the perfect creature to convey angels in a tragedy. Birds are not only symbols of both life and death, but as Flexer observes, they are an unlikely puzzle of jerkiness and grace, power and vulnerability. They also can connote a desire for liberation and transcendence, transformation and freedom. Yet this work seems to me to visually convey the heart wrenching sanctity of lives lost, of dreams crushed. Perhaps these are spirits flying away, being carried by birds that are presumptive harbingers of death as well as angels, preparing them to fulfill dreams in another lifetime. It seems to me to portray human lives drifting away from us as we stand helplessly looking on, being carried away in our own little lifeboats, as we are in the midst of the most malignant natural disaster of our era. And yet, improbably, there is a sense of beauty, calm, and grace.
In Tumbling, we can further glimpse Flexer’s message of hope and transformation amid devastation. Here we see people drifting in circles, at times upside down, against a blue sky and building. They are whirling, diving, flying, floating gracefully like the birds next to them. We are privy to the sense of the freedom and whimsy inherent in floating in air. For Flexer, the comings and goings of people in flight is not solely about death but also about personal change. As Flexer states: “maybe it’s [going to] another place after life or maybe it’s a transformation in which you reinvent yourself.” Dying is certainly one type of transformation. Letting go of old habits, changing one’s ways to produce positive change in oneself and the world, is another.This certainly applies to the pandemic, as we sit at the brink of a new world. Our lives and our views about the world will be radically altered when this is over. That’s the thing about global crises, or even personal crises: they force us to realize that continuing along the same path is not an option. If we are to survive, we need to change. Even the act of painting mirrors the irony of trying to keep still amidst perpetual movement. As Flexer perceptively states: “Painting is such a beautiful impulse to keep the world still. How do you use a still medium to create a moving world?” Such an apt metaphor for the impulse to try to hold on to our old behaviours when the world around us is spinning out of control.
The painting entitled Will We? seems to be a call to action on another simmering global crisis: climate change. We see the whooping crane, a species that was almost wiped out but was ultimately rescued from extinction by human efforts. This painting seems to be a warning for a future as well as a hopeful message for the possibility of change. On the left side of the canvas are people and cranes, intertwined like vines, falling toward the earth. On the right side, they are lifting themselves up, taking off in flight as if choosing the option to soar and save our planet, and all of the interconnected species share it with us. Environmental destruction is of course closely intertwined with viral calamities, as for example, deforestation allows novel viruses to encroach upon civilization. The title is a call to joint action by the viewer, asking us on which side of the painting we want to live: further destruction or positive transformation. As Flexer states: “We’re all in it together, but we’re also going to solve it together and it’s not going to be one giant solution that will come from on high but will be one mass movement and everyone can contribute what their piece of the puzzle is...” The choice, and the ultimate solution, is ours, this artist seems to say.
Mindy Flexer’s art expresses the most pressing issues of our time in a stunning language of color, intertwined forms and magically winged themes. Since each person experiences art differently, art can be open to a wide range of interpretations. Like a drawing by Escher, Flexer’s work can be seen in vastly different lights depending on one’s perspective, ranging from comfort amidst destruction and death, to a joyful rendition of the interconnectedness of life, and even enticing us to explore possibilities as we stand at an existential crossroad, among other themes. These are powerful images that aren’t easily forgotten. They belong on our roster of haunting images that capture the magnitude of problems facing our current world. Her work also conveys the larger, hopeful picture of individual transformation, growth, and responsibility. We need more art like this now, to provide comfort and solace, to express an emotional depth that cannot be captured in words, to convey our collective suffering, and as a call to action. Let’s hope that as we stand on the threshold of a new world, forced to leave our old ways behind, we will have learned to care more about the power of human connection and to be true stewards of our only planet. In the future, when the world is a different place, changed by this monstrous virus, and our grandchildren ask us for stories describing what it was like, perhaps there will be no words. For words are unable to capture the enormity of this moment in history. There will only be images. And those images will speak volumes.
This article was previously published at InLiquid.
Deborah Kostianovsky, M.D., M.L.A. is a writer about contemporary art in Philadelphia. She has been working as a child and adolescent psychiatrist for thirty years, and recently transitioned to writing about art. She holds a Masters of Liberal Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania, with a focus on philosophy of aesthetics, art history, and comparative literature. She is presently an Editorial Intern at InLiquid, a nonprofit arts association, where she has written over forty articles.
Mindy Flexer is a professional realist painter, teaching artist, and climate activist in Philadelphia. She has a B.A. from Oberlin College, and a B.F.A. from University of the Arts, and an M.Ed. in Art Education from Tyler School of Art.
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