Text by Georgina Wright
Previously somewhat marginalized as a female painter in a period where prominence was placed on abstraction and conceptual practice, Welsh-born artist Sylvia Sleigh’s (1916-2010) first UK retrospective hosted by Tate Liverpool is her largest exhibition to date and strives towards exposing her work to a much wider audience.
Although retaining an ambiguous traditional appearance Sylvia Sleigh’s feminist intentions are bracingly obvious in the execution of her work; focusing on male nudes Sleigh challenges the art historical tradition of the male gaze onto a female body. In her paintings of both genders she presents an unintentionally witty observation on conformity and by normalising details of the body such as body hair and tan lines she fundamentally critiques the idealisation of the female body throughout art history.
For the audience the exhibition of forty-six paintings shown simultaneously in one room produces an intimidating surrounding space; the painted figure becomes the viewer and ultimately negates any sense of voyeurism and objectification. The viewer is ultimately confronted with a stark reflection of human life.
As opposed to removing desire from the viewing experience, through her crude realism, Sleigh has generated a body of work that elevates her subjects, demonstrating that beauty can be found in every momentary detail of the person painted and works towards the quixotic aspiration of a humanely erotic practice for the female gaze. Sleigh’s female gaze continues to have a significant impact upon the viewer and the formal qualities of her paintings appear poignantly relevant to contemporary art.
This exhibition uncovers a refreshingly formal exploration and reveals the work of an artist who has been integral to the feminist art movement in New York from the 1960s.
Sylvia Sleigh is on display at Tate Liverpool until 3 May 2013.
Georgina Wright is a writer based in Liverpool.