Skip to Main Content

Audrey Frank Anastasi Paintings at Brooklyn College Library: Information on A.F. Anastasi

Exhibit Guide. Exhibit open September 15, 2022 - January 13, 2023

About Audrey Frank Anastasi

Audrey Frank Anastasi is a prolific and tireless visual artist, working primarily in 2-dimensional mediums: painting, drawing, collage, mixed media, and print. At the core of her studio practice is the belief that the universal human truths expressed in art transcend the particulars of time and place, and therefore, illuminate our shared humanity. Many of Ms. Anastasi’s works focus on the human subject, with boldly painted faces and figures, expressing an inner life beyond exterior representation.

She has an extensive history of 20 solo and over 200 group exhibitions. The original ref-u-gee series of forced-migration–themed artwork was first exhibited publicly by the Valentine Museum of Art (VMoA), Brooklyn.

Ms. Anastasi’s work is in private and public collections, including the Valentine Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY; the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY; Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, Brazil; Pfizer, NY; Avon; St. Vincent’s Hospital Collection, NYC; and the Museum of Modern Art Photography Archives (for drawings which were included in the original limited edition photography book, Sirius Studies, in collaboration with Thomas Roma).

Among her public art installations on permanent display are a portrait of Jo Davidson for the Trailside Museum and Zoo, Bear Mountain State Park, NY, and the Stations of the Cross in the new auditorium of Our Lady of Angels Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn, NY.

In addition to her artistic practice, Ms. Anastasi is a curator, gallery owner/director, educator and arts advocate. In 2005, she and her husband, Joseph Anastasi, founded Tabla Rasa Gallery in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. She continues to serve on the Board of Directors of the Brooklyn Arts Council and Hook Arts Media, formerly Dance Theatre Etcetera. She is a President Emeritus of Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition.

Artist statement about her ref-u-gee series

Media coverage of current worldwide mass migration is constant, ubiquitous, and impersonal. The sound bites, reporting statistics alone, can numb us to the plight of the faceless, anonymous multitudes seeking refuge. So often throughout history, those throngs of people who are perceived as “other” are rejected, even reviled, for their culture, ethnicity, religious beliefs, or geographic origins. Simply put, they are people seen as too different to elicit empathy. Art can serve to remind us of this shared humanity. Here are people who seemingly, and perhaps literally, are worlds apart in their origins, but are in fact individuals just like ourselves who love and laugh, suffer and cry, mourn and face adversity, raise children and work, help others, and seek to rebuild.

It’s heartbreaking to imagine the depth of desperation that drives a family to uproot all they know, all that is familiar—to leave friends and neighbors, dispose of all their possessions, abandon their lifelong homes—to seek a fresh life of safety, peace, and freedom. These unknown individuals are our grandmas and grandpas, our bubbies, zaides, nonnas, nonnos, abuelas, abuelos, grand-meres, papys, as well as our brothers and sisters. But for the randomness of circumstance, they are truly us: They are you and they are me.

My artistic process starts with imagining the physical and psychological discomforts of the mass migration, of the countless strains upon individuals and their families, and then allowing the images to develop instinctively. The series has 180 small paintings, a multiple of the number 18, or “Chai,” a symbol of life. The paint is laid down upon plasticized passport photo “protectors,” approximately 5” x 7.” This base material has preprinted text referring to checklist items and documents related to travel preparations, which is ironic, as these are depictions of people who may be fleeing without proper papers, people who officially “belong” nowhere. The slick surface allows for a malleable process, with alternating application and removal of paint. Recognizable forms quickly arise from the initial loose abstraction. Images of water, heavily laden boats, swimming, struggling and drowned humans, tent cities, barbed wire fences, and multitudes of refugees emerge, propelled forward on intuition. While I paint, I am immersed in a colorless world, suggesting the starkness of a black and white newspaper, but also unquestionably wrought with a human hand.

— Audrey Frank Anastasi

Phyllis Braff on the ref-u-gee series


The ref-u-gee series

By Phyllis Braff

Engaging with Audrey Frank Anastasi’s ref-u-gee series feels both timeless and modern. Our collective knowledge of human suffering throughout the ages makes this art seem timeless, while the choice and handling of materials both deliver the message and churn emotions in a way that makes the paintings feel totally of our era.

Probing angst is a quality long associated with Anastasi’s career. She has tended to seek out deep and, for the most part, universally felt subjects. Her “Stations of the Cross”—a major exhibition and book publication—is one highlight from the past decade. Earlier subjects examined human characteristics often considered to be quite subjective and internal. Revealing tension has long been a goal, with the artist’s gaze, and inevitably ours, best defined as bearing witness.

With the ref-u-gee project, Anastasi turns her attention to a current global crisis: the plight of displaced populations.

Using swift, fractured, and layered brushstrokes, she covers small format surfaces with generalized pigment gestures as she creates images that evoke scenes of suffering. There are parents clutching babies, refugees behind barbed wire fencing, masses of people crowded into boats, vast groups confined within detention camps, and columns of the displaced trudging across the landscape. As a paint surface, Anastasi uses not canvas, but the plasticized folders designed to hold passport

photos. At points where she allows her pigment to thin, the black letters of official notices emerge in fragmented units through the primary paint surface and add to the narrative concerning refugee transit restrictions. The subject triggers thoughts about suffering peoples from the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, as the travails of Syrians, Eritreans, and Yemenis immediately come to mind. Yet the art does not derive from specific photographs circulated in the news, but rather links more to a cumulative consciousness of the displaced.

In the paintings that emphasize the scope of the refugee situation, there is the sense of large populations either traveling a roadway, or crowded within a camp’s restricted space. At times these settings appear to be tent cities, and often a nocturnal darkness underscores the mood of the scene. Figures, sometimes crumpled, are depicted as anonymous, with facial features either absent or generalized. Both visually and psychologically, their projections of distress recall the impact of Théophile Steinlein’s nineteenth century drawings that focused on the emotions of the displaced at a time when Europe was undergoing tremendous social upheavals.

Various thematic details contribute to the expressive force throughout the re-fu-gee series. When a wire fence becomes part of the imagery it intensifies the sense of confinement. The wire pattern also adds a surface grid, another strong contemporary visual element. Where there are concentrations of figures on boats or rafts, the human weight seems reinforced by the surrounding emptiness of water and sky. In still another type of edgy stimulation, the images of parents clutching small children and of mothers cradling infants generate their own strong universal identifications, perhaps somewhat akin to the powerful Käthe Kollwitz refugee drawings from the mid-twentieth century.

Anastasi heightens these fraught experiences by emphasizing the physicality of her pigments. Viewers feel urgency in the paint application and in the way this swirling material activates the art surface and reinforces the emotional message. Thick and thin, swirling or anchored, the paint is very gestural and gives the impression of conveying the artist’s own energy. Adding to the optical dynamics, these swift paint strokes may also be what is describing heads or arms. Everything is rendered in bright white, deep black, and rich variations of gray. There is both sobriety and brilliance, with still more illumination coming from the plasticized surface of the photo holder. The strength of the art-making process has a major role in guiding sensual responses and helps the project have an impact that is apart from this era’s daily political reporting.

There is much rawness here—an important part of the vibrant immediacy. Anastasi builds tactile qualities and ruggedness by using thick brushes and by switching between her left and right hands. Her intention is to connect very directly with the paint and turn its visceral properties into a means of communication. It is an approach that augments the poignant content.                  

It is also an approach that tends to generalize pictorial settings. Often backgrounds can read as either landscape or abstraction and often blobs of paint will suggest a storm, a cloud, a boat, or a road. This emphasis on non-specificity helps to reinforce the global character of the refugee plight.

Art serving as witness to tragedy has a distinguished tradition. One thinks of Goya, who also employed broadly rendered generalizations in some of his commentaries on human atrocities. Powerful art pieces from the late twentieth century include paintings by Leon Golub, and also mixed media work by Anselm Kiefer who borrows and combines various materials and methods to augment messages of human angst. More recently, we have Ai Weiwei’s provocative installation pieces and conceptual projects inspired by his visits to refugee camps.

Social commentary art often makes effective use of symbols. Text lettering on the photo holders takes on this role in the Anastasi series. Standardized and official in character, the words advise the traveling public about their cameras and possessions, thus setting up a tension between voluntary pleasure travel and the situation of the suffering masses of displaced people depicted in the brushy pigment strokes. The contrast is stark. Confronting irony is part of the impact.

Annexing messages triggered by real world objects suits the goals of contemporary art. Here the approach heightens both the sense of immediacy and the emotions generated by the ref-u-gee paintings and helps to make this a project that calls attention to a large issue—one that crosses borders and touches people throughout the world.

Phyllis Braff served as an art critic for The New York Times for several decades, and is a past-president of the International Association of Art Critics - USA section. She has written essays and reviews for international art publications. Other publications include Bibliography of Twentieth Century Art and Architecture, Bibliography of American Art and Architecture, and essays for a number of monographs and exhibition catalogues. A former museum administrator and art curator, she has also taught art history and criticism.

Interview with Anastasi by Phyllis Braff


Audrey Anastasi Talks About Her ref-u-gee Project

Throughout her career, Audrey Frank Anastasi has been conveying her reactions to powerful topics through her innovative painting. She discussed some of her ideas with Phyllis Braff during several conversations while the ref-u-gee project was underway.

Phyllis Braff: You focus on some extraordinarily gripping emotions in the refugee series. What personal passions became part of this strong art?

Phyllis Braff: Even though there seems to be such swiftness and spontaneity in these paintings, the series format suggests a degree of planning to achieve a significant goal. What was behind your concept for the series?

Audrey Frank Anastasi: I had always wanted to do a series based on the

Stations of the Cross. I was deeply moved by something I learned about Martin Luther King Jr., which was that people within his close circle turned against him. In my mind, there was a strong analogy to the journey of Jesus. Both Dr. King and Jesus met betrayal with dignity and grace. That was the motivation for me to finally paint the Stations of the Cross. This series on forced migration follows the theme of dignity in the face of unconscionable and horrific treatment.

PB: Your probing of the refugee horror has led to perhaps 200 or more artworks. Have you given them titles?

AFA: Not individual titles, but they fall into sub-themes: Boats; Multitudes; Camps;

Parents; Fences; and Corpses.

PB: The paint itself seems to have so much energy. What contributes to this dynamic character?

AFA: In general, I work quickly, with large brushes and, in order to further circumvent getting seduced into perfectionism, I prefer to paint broadly with my non-dominant, left hand. Also, I feel that I am connecting with the paint.

PB: The paint seems to move. A viewer feels velocity.

AFA: There is a physicality that comes in part from the plasticized passport photo holders used as a support. Paint slides around. It’s important that I was working on a surface that already had its own definite character, outside of the artist’s control.

PB: How did you discover the photo holders?

AFA: Through my family, I was aware of products that were available to the photographic trade.

PB: The very official-looking typography on the passport photo holders is visible at points where the pigment is thinner. In what way was it meaningful to incorporate the lettering into your message?

AFA: The printing often deals with cameras, lenses, film, and other belongings that relate to the luxuries, and particularly the safety, of travel. This strikes me as horribly ironic when juxtaposed with the refugees’ dangerous situation.

PB: Do the passport references have other meanings here too?

AFA: Yes. On one hand there is the idea of place that they represent, yet this contrasts with the forced homelessness of the suffering migrants. A passport equates with freedom, but the refugees are people traveling without the protection of official documents.

PB: You decided to execute the paintings in black, white, and tones of gray. What was behind your thinking?

AFA: I like the dynamic of using black and white, and its solemnity feels right in terms of translating the immigrants into images. Also, color is more illustrative. Black and white is already an abstraction.

PB: The series has a number of sub-themes. One that almost immediately strikes a chord with viewers deals with the migrants on rafts or boats.

AFA: Here I hoped that the rugged, very physical paint strokes would convey the sense of bodies of water and particularly the sense of rough, challenging seas. The plight of those attempting the Mediterranean crossing was on my mind.

PB: Some pieces in the series are horizontal, and some are vertical. The verticals seem to compress the energy, perhaps intensifying the theme.

AFA: The two formats might present different treatments, and degrees of variation, in the seascape horizon. Both formats bring in the roughness of the sea. Sometimes there are figures in the water.

PB: Horizons also have a strong role in the paintings that feature seemingly endless columns of refugees.

AFA: Sometimes they appear stormy—suggesting rain, snow, or threatening clouds. This implies the climate of disorder conveying the challenging situation. Sometimes the horizon seems abstract, and sometimes it borders between abstraction and a situation that might read like a landscape. The people are blobs of paint. In endless columns they convey the scope of the plight. The paint gestures capture the emotions of the real situation.

PB: You also have created some impressive vertical paintings, approximately 8 feet high, featuring similar motifs. Did the large paintings emerge from the series of small pieces?

AFA: Yes, as I was obsessively producing the small works, I felt compelled to translate the images to a larger format. The Sintra board panels were a natural transition, as they, too, accommodate the immediacy and spontaneity of my fluid application of paint.

PB: You have used gold leaf in other paintings here in the studio. What were your thoughts in taking this step?

AFA: When I first used gold, in my “Stations of the Cross” series, I discovered how alive it was. Light seems to emanate from the surface, and the gold area becomes very alive when a viewer moves. It has its own energy and radiance. There is an interesting interplay between the spiritual and the earthly. The black matte paint seems real, yet static. The gold leaf is responsive.

PB: It’s always interesting to learn more about other art that a creative person might admire.

AFA: Over the years, I have found myself thinking about Anselm Kiefer, and about William Kentridge too. Also, the works by Lucian Freud and Gerhard Richter come to mind. Their art is very powerful.

Phyllis Braff served as an art critic for The New York Times for several decades, and is a past-president of the International Association of Art Critics - USA section. She has written essays and reviews for international art publications. Other publications include Bibliography of Twentieth Century Art and Architecture, Bibliography of American Art and Architecture, and essays for a number of monographs and exhibition catalogues. A former museum administrator and art curator, she has also taught art history and criticism.