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Flick’s Freeways explores time and place

Artist creates beauty from monotony

by Lillian Insalata
Freeways series
Freeways is on view in Santa Monica. (Courtesy of the artist and ROSE GALLERY)

For many Angelenos, getting on the freeway is entering a dead zone. The serpentine miles of endless concrete take us from Point A to Point B with nothing discernibly interesting or beautiful along the way — just billboards, overpasses and exit signs.

Robbert Flick sees something more.

For the USC Roski School of Art and Design professor, it is precisely the repetitive monotony of freeways that makes them the perfect subject for photography.

Finding inspiration far from home

Flick, who was born in Holland, came to Los Angeles in the 1960s. Enamored with what he calls the city’s “rich open-endedness” and “nonexistent speed limit,” Flick said the physical and cultural L.A. environment profoundly influenced his early photography.

“There’s a particular sensibility — the sense of place is important,” he said. “How do you find a visual representation for the layered experience of Los Angeles and the fact that you’re constantly in movement?”

When Flick initially photographed the city on foot, he realized that the single photo frame did not suit. He began constructing large, hundred-frame compilations — grids that would become his signature framework.

He utilized a scaled-down grid format for his recent Freeways series, but photographed from the left backseat of a car to capture the driver’s vantage point. He mostly photographed the 210 and the 10 freeways on his daily commute from Claremont to USC.

“If you’re driving on the freeways, it’s really dull,” Flick said. “So what I was interested in was not getting an extraordinary picture, but rather to distill those anonymous parts that will generate a recollection in the viewer. It’s trying to address the experience of it rather than the actuality of it.”

Viewers tend to read the images up close from left to right and top to bottom, examining each photograph for details and telltale signs of location. However, from a distance it is apparent that each photo is in fact a brushstroke, a dot of color in a masterfully orchestrated picture.

“I’m creating an image,” Flick said, echoing the famous teachings of photographer Robert Heinecken, whom Flick studied under at UCLA.

“The value of the different frames could be related to the construction of art pieces. What I’m hoping is that the pieces themselves continue to change for the viewer over time, so that it’s not just a picture of something, but an object about something.”

A study of growth

Flick has imparted his approach to photography and image-making to USC Roski students for decades — and despite his high stature as an artist, he relishes teaching introductory photography to undergraduates.

“What got me interested in photography was biology — looking at how things grow,” Flick said. “That’s also why I’m interested in teaching. It’s a growth process that you’re witness to.”

In “Introduction to Photography,” Flick teaches students techniques for black-and-white analog photography alongside the technological history of the camera. Though one might assume that near-obsolete film would flummox today’s digitally savvy students, Flick said that the waiting and the selection process instead offer students a rare opportunity to take risks and make difficult aesthetic choices.

“There’s the possibility for opening up and finding a personal voice in a medium that is so all-pervasive,” Flick said. “You’re forced to make decisions and come to terms with what your biases are. That aspect of it is quite wonderful.”

The Freeways series is on view at ROSE GALLERY in Santa Monica, Calif., through April 12.

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