About Face: The Art of Vivienne Flesher

For her first American show, the S.F. illustrator deeply into the mystery of the human visage.

Giorgiko, The Apprentice.

One of Vivienne Flesher’s strengths lies in creating faces that are recognizable but artistically rendered. In fact, so many media outlets, organizations, and entities — including the U.S. government — have paid Flesher to do these faces that millions and millions of people have seen her art over the years, even if they don’t always attach it to her name.

One example: The New York Times’ front page on July 25, 2010 featured a gigantic image of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts looking off into the distance, his face resolute as he held his mouth tightly shut. With its charcoal shadows and other distinct touches, like a cartoonish left ear, Flesher’s illustration framed an in-depth analysis of Roberts’ first five years on the Court, setting the tone for a lengthy, Sunday piece headlined “The Most Conservative Court in Decades.”

What happens when a highly acclaimed illustrator like Flesher says, “Enough! I’m taking a break from assigned faces!”? You get the exhibit “Vivienne Flesher: The Face of Another,” which includes paintings whose figures have no real faces (or their faces are masked or otherwise incomplete).

In “The Face of Another,” Flesher abstracts her people into contours, outlines, and identifiable shapes that comment on the impossibility of knowing someone merely at a glance. The figures are still appealing, often mysterious, and even oddly beautiful. And they give Flesher, a San Francisco resident, a chance to essentially unmask one side of herself for another. This other, more abstract side isn’t new — she’s done lots of similar work in the past — but her exhibit at Jack Fischer Gallery assembles these more esoteric pieces for the first real time.

“This is my first show in America,” Flesher, who’s 62 and a grandmother, tells SF Weekly, adding, “I’m always battling my illustration roots that it should be prettier and easy for editors to OK. It’s tough with that monkey on your back. But I’m at a point in my life where, if I can’t do it for myself, what am I doing and how am I living?”

“The Face of Another” takes its title from a 1966 Japanese film, which Flesher saw, about a man who covers his newly disfigured face with the life-like mask of another man’s face. The film by Hiroshi Teshigahara, like his acclaimed Woman in the Dunes, is an unforgettable narrative of angst, existentialism, and dramatic tension. These traits can also be found in a Flesher piece like Man Wearing a Hat, which was originally a sketch from a life-drawing class.

“It was just a giant head that I flipped upside down and painted the silhouette of a man on it,” says Flesher, who describes the model for the silhouette as a centuries-old Russian man. “I kept thinking there should be a face, but at one point I decided, ‘Why should there be a face?’ It doesn’t have to be pretty. That’s what I love about doing this stuff — doing what I want to do for a change, and not what all my editors and art directors have always wanted me to do. They want things that are pretty. I love drawing skeletons, though I don’t think anyone will ever buy one of my skeletons.”

Patrons have purchased Flesher’s U.S.-commissioned stamps, like her 2006 stamp that promotes the Amber Alert system for abducted children, and her 2005 “LOVE” stamp that featured a bouquet of flowers. But even her stamp commissions had a layer of authority that tested Flesher’s patience since juries who oversaw those works (called the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee) depicted people like the actor Karl Malden, who didn’t have art backgrounds. Malden, she says, was on a jury that Flesher submitted to a few decades ago, before her 2005 and 2006 stamps. 

“What happens when you do a stamp is that it’s a committee project,” Flesher says. “You have to do sketches — and I didn’t know this at the time — but the sketches end up being the finished [work] because the people on the committee aren’t artists. They aren’t art directors. Karl Malden was one of the guys on one of my stamps, and he was a fine actor, but they can’t read a sketch. So I had a choice of trying to make finished sketches or knowing that I was going to lose [the commission] and lose out on the payment that I wanted. So I did the best I could, and you can’t change it once they pick it. It’s a weird thing.”

Also weird is that “Vivienne Flesher: The Face of Another” could be Flesher’s last exhibit of abstract paintings. As Flesher tells SF Weekly, “It’s weird because I started painting again, but I could leave it forever. I love it when it’s going well, but I go back and forth.”

This state of undefined transition is also apparent in Flesher’s paintings. In fact, it’s their defining feature — a paradox if ever there was one.

 

On opening night of “LAX/SFO Pt. III,” art-goers crammed into Heron Arts’ San Francisco exhibit space — and were still almost outnumbered by the pieces of art. So many good artists — almost 90 — contributed works that attendees often bumped into each other to get closer to pieces like The Apprentice, Giorgiko’s funny painting of a Lego-like character with a neck tattoo and medieval, Flemish neckwear called a ruff.

Nearly every artwork in “LAX/SFO Pt. III” is 12 inches by 12 inches, or about the size of a small pillow, and many of the works have a street-art vibe, including the exhibit’s biggest:  an untitled mural, by Lauren YS and Amy Sol, of two female figures sharing a moment of calm in what looks like a nighttime garden. Also highly notable were David “Meggs” Hooke’s Conscious Consumption, a painting of a skull covered in a palette of colors, and Seth Armstrong’s Elysian, a scene of blues, reds, grays, and oranges that depicts a sunset reflecting on downtown apartment buildings.

Thinkspace, a Los Angeles gallery with an aesthetic that’s similar to Heron Arts’, curated the exhibit. The galleries are billing their collaboration as “one of the largest group shows of the New Contemporary genre in San Francisco to date.” The artworks’ smaller framing means multiple pieces are on every column and wall at Heron Arts, and means there is art for pretty much every taste. 

“Vivienne Flesher: The Face of Another,” through July 13, at Jack Fischer Gallery, Minnesota Street Project, 1275 Minnesota St. Free, jackfischergallery.com.

“LAX/SFO Pt. III,” through July 6, at Heron Arts, 7 Heron St. Free; heronarts.com.

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