I was first introduced to Sylvia Sleigh’s work during an art fair. Her painting, Annunciation, of a doe-eyed male figure standing in a blossoming garden, wearing a crown of lustrous curls and cropped denim shorts, felt refreshingly out of place. Unlike anything else I’d seen at the fair, the piece was welcoming. I asked the dealer for the name of the artist, and later familiarized myself with her work.
Looking through more of Sleigh’s images, I was first struck by her somewhat naive approach to painting. She fixated on details, roving over a scene telescopically, describing textiles, hair follicles, or flower peddles with equal intensity. Surfaces seemed fetishized or eroticized, but playfully so. Perspectives were sometimes skewed or slightly flattened, revealing her desire to focus on parts rather than the whole. I noticed how this “naive” perspective, instead of invalidating the work, lent it a tranquil sense of painterly equanimity. Her pieces seemed indifferent to the visual hierarchy that defines space, distance, or remove. Sleigh’s eyes were an equalizing force and connected her with her subjects in a way that felt personal and political. In Annunciation, she observed the overflowing garden, the character of specific types of body hair and the minute flecks of light that unified the day. Each represented element seemed to be made from the same molecular makeup, striving to exist on the same plane. Sleigh’s approach also pointed to the fact that painter and muse were made of the same atoms and molecules, which she emphasized by often portraying herself in the act of painting alongside her subjects. Earlier pieces (sometimes self-portraits) were painted into the backgrounds of newer works, further compressing the distance between artist and muse. Rather than emphasizing the otherness of those she painted (whether male or female), Sleigh drew them closer into herself, looking for common ground, collapsing space and making desire a shared experience. For me, this seemed like more than just a feminist political statement. It felt like a shift in the trajectory of figurative painting. Painting people is an endeavor full of pitfalls and insidious false signifiers. Sleigh managed to mine something fresh out of painting’s most well traveled tropes, while expressing her point-of-view deftly and conceptually. Her work still feels radical to me today.
Art with the nerve to claim a female point of view, or identify as feminine, is all too often considered less serious (naive) or else desperately political, shunted to the margins. Sleigh’s piece at the art fair was bohemian, folksy, nostalgic, and unapologetically pretty. This is why, unfortunately, it does not surprise me that I was familiar with many of Sleigh’s realist male contemporaries, Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, and Alfred Leslie, before I found her work.
As a female artist with a male celebrity’s name, I often register people’s subtle surprise when they learn my paintings were made by a woman. In spite of having a comedian’s name, I wonder if I am sometimes afforded a moments more serious consideration because I am first assumed to be a man. Although grateful that my name acts as an equalizer at times, it’s disappointing that I should benefit from the misconception. I aspire for my work to act as the equalizer, rather than my name. The impulse to assign genius, authority, or influence based on gender (or more specifically the designation of femininity or masculinity) is strong and worth rooting out. Sylvia Sleigh took a painting tradition born of these impulses and transformed it with a gentle hand. She didn’t conquer, or subdue it. She looked carefully at it, and she coaxed it into something else.
Sylvia Sleigh had her tender yet pointed gaze but she also referenced the influence of her well established art critic/curator husband, Lawrence Alloway, to root her in the contemporary conversation. It helped that she applied her naive style to subjects like her husband and their artist/intellectual friends, posing them in modern furniture by notable designers. Sleigh asked the viewer to reconsider their judgments of her painting approach by proving she was not ignorant or out of touch. She was in fact, in the company of great minds. Sleigh had to emphasize that her equalizing gaze was intentional and considered, and every bit as legitimate as her male contemporaries. Unlike Pearlstein, she didn’t transform people into still lives, or purify lifestyle into form like Katz, both of whom were praised for detaching their figurative work from the figure. Sleigh had her own realism, and it wasn’t based on detachment anymore than it was on guilelessness or some sort of feminine frivolity. It seemed born out of the concept of connectedness, an idea that is all to often branded as feminine, rather than universal.
If she had strictly painted her beautiful anonymous male muses in gardens, I’m not sure she would have achieved the same recognition. However, it is with those anonymous figures that I believe she does her best work. With them, she is equally in love with paint, floral landscapes and male body hair, treating everything and everyone with matching zest. Maybe there is a sense of idealism in Sleigh’s paintings that has been overshadowed by more fashionable works based on irony. That’s why finding her piece at an art fair made it feel like a jewel among the gilded. There is something sacred in these types of encounters with paintings, with men, with nature. I think Sleigh gets to that in Annunciation. She wasn’t afraid to unabashedly seek connectedness.