Tate Liverpool – Wolfson Gallery
8 February – 3 May 2013
Tate Liverpool presents the first UK retrospective of the realist painter Sylvia Sleigh (1916–2010). Sleigh worked in London before becoming an important part of New York’s feminist art scene in the 1960s and beyond. As a female painter during a period when a great emphasis was placed on abstraction and conceptual practice, she has been widely overlooked in the field of modern and contemporary art. Tate Liverpool’s exhibition, the largest of her work to date, seeks to readdress this and bring her powerful work to a wider audience.
Welsh-born Sleigh trained in painting at Brighton Art School at a time when female art students were, as she recalled, ‘treated in a second-rate fashion’. Despite having a solo exhibition at Kensington Art Gallery in 1953, she received little public recognition until her move to New York in the 1960s. Sleigh and her husband, the art critic and Guggenheim curator Lawrence Alloway, created a home that welcomed artists, writers and musicians, many of whom Sleigh painted. Works such as Eleanor Antin 1968, Arakawa and Madeline Gins 1971, and A. I. R. Group Portrait 1977-8, radiate a sense of friendship and emotional attachment between the artist and her sitters, and present a pantheon of significant figures from this cultural moment.
The exhibition presents forty paintings, plus eleven works on paper, providing a great insight into the artist’s style and the key themes of her work. Sleigh became known for her explicit paintings of male nudes, which subverted the art historical tradition of a male gaze onto a female body. She painted individuals of both genders, including normalising details such as body hair and tan-lines to implicitly critique the idealisation of female bodies found in art history. Rather than de-beautify or remove desire from the viewing experience, this practice produced a body of work that elevates her subjects, showing the beauty to be found in every person painted. By portraying these humanising details, she aimed to remove objectification from art.
Works included in the exhibition such as Annunciation: Paul Rosano 1975, reflect her interest in re-working and updating art historical styles. The detailed floral background recalls Pre-Raphaelite painting and the title alludes to religious paintings of the Renaissance; Rosano’s typical 1970’s afro hairstyle becomes a halo, a conjunction of historic and contemporary style. Sleigh’s female gaze still has a powerful impact on viewers and the formal qualities of her painting seem poignantly contemporary.
Tate Liverpool has invited Los Angeles based artist Frances Stark to respond to the exhibition, offering an interpretation of Sleigh’s work and a contemporary consideration of her relevance and impact.
Sylvia Sleigh is organised by Stiftelsen Kunstnernes Hus, Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Tate Liverpool, CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux and Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo. It is curated at Tate Liverpool by Francesco Manacorda, Artistic Director, with Eleanor Clayton, Assistant Curator.