Friday, February 15, 2013

Reality show

At first glance, some of the paintings in the Sylvia Sleigh exhibition at Tate Liverpool might look - as one of my companions put it - like the results of "a GCSE art project". Unjustly harsh, perhaps, but it's true that there doesn't seem to be much to get excited about in Sleigh's apparently conventional technique and style.

But then again that technique and style is exactly what made her stand out in mid-twentieth-century New York - the Welsh-born artist with a steadfast adherence to a realist mode of representation while all around were pursuing supposedly more experimental and radical paths (abstraction, minimalism).

However, merely categorising her as a realist painter does her a bit of a disservice, because the more you look the more peculiarities begin to strike you. Hands, feet and tops of heads are routinely cropped out of frame as if by a bad photographer - there's more to people, she seems to be suggesting in a very literal way, than just what you can put on a 2D canvas. Her portrait Bob Hock Standing gives her subject what look like disproportionally long legs, and the viewer is puzzled by the emptiness of the room and left to ponder whether what's behind him on the wall is definitely a mirror or actually a window.

Stranger still is her self-portait with her second husband Lawrence Alloway, in which she is looking directly out of the picture at the viewer but the art critic and Guggenheim curator is staring blankly ahead. The pair of them are physically separated by a towering avocado plant called Arthur, which not only appears to have forced its way inbetween the couple but also into the painting's title.

Sleigh is perhaps most celebrated as a feminist, though, seeking both to offer less transparently idealised and more realistic depictions of women's bodies (Felicity Rainnie is shown with clear tan lines, for instance) and also to put men (often musician and Jim Morrison lookalike Paul Rosano) into poses into which artists conventionally place women. The paintings frequently put the viewer into confrontation with lolling cocks and hairy scrotums - Sleigh's intention being to make him or her question why it might seem unusual or why it might cause offence when the female nude is so extraordinarly ubiquitous beyond the confines of gallery walls.

No comments: