New York

Sylvia Sleigh

Sylvia Sleigh is improving her painting by imitating the compositional structures and the subject matter of figurative paintings. In her recent show, Ingres, Titian, and Signorelli are mentors. Sleigh’s struggle to integrate portraiture with Classical models and modes is one familiar to every art student faced with the (usually) less than ideal life-class model. The nude-in-north-light is an idealization, a transformation of the flawed physical facts. Unlike Pearlstein, who accepts the model as model, Sleigh is interested in transformation. Several problems complicate this process.

First, she paints awkwardly. Figures are slightly disjointed—additions of parts rather than organic wholes. The groping toward a canon of proportions never really suppresses the sense that guesswork and a kind of earnest faith in geometrical proportioning are the starting points. Although each part of the body is conscientiously rendered with loose, body-conforming brushstrokes, the intervals are off. The parts don’t add up, but remain separate and fractured. The same is true of the compositions. In group portraits, the figures are locked into mechanical rather than organic relationships with each other. Space is flattened into a series of planes. Depth is indicated by simple overlap and by little gaps between shapes. Although these gaps may be there because each figure posed separately, the effect is a composite of single portraits.

There is the problem of psychological interaction as well. In Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, and Family, the psychological intensity of Spero’s and Golub’s paintings which hang in the background overwhelm and dominate the sitters who stare out at us stoically.

The last complication is the function of relating portraiture with le beau idéal. Court of Pan is based on Luca Signorelli’s painting. It is a copy in the degree, for instance, that Van Gogh’s copies of Delacroix prints looked more like Van Gogh than Delacroix. In Sleigh’s work, there is tension between the mythological art-historical mise-en-scène and the contemporary models who serve as proxies for the 15th-century ideal type. This tension is similar to that felt in certain Roman portraits in which a realistic rendering of an imperial head is mounted on the idealized body of a god.

Sleigh’s partial solution to the problem was in finding and painting a male type that embodied her ideal. The choice of models who express and personalize the artist’s ideal is a way out of the additive process of the Old Masters who took a nose from one sitter, a mouth from another, and so on to create thereby a rather anonymous looking androgyne. In Sleigh’s work Paul Rosano and Phillip Golub appear several times, often more than once in the same painting, as this embodied ideal. In Three Aspects of Pan, Golub’s head is rendered in profile, frontally, and three-quarter views. This attempt to describe the ideal form from several (explicitly Classical) angles is a copybook approach that informs much of Sleigh’s painting. In Turkish Bath, Rosano appears standing and also sitting with his back to us. The other figures are sitting (in a chair), kneeling, sitting (on the floor), and reclining. Turkish Bath began as an investigation of Titian’s Venus and the Lute Player with Lawrence Alloway as odalisque and Rosano as guitar player. Baroque swags of drapery reappear as a flattened Navajo blanket, its sharp geometric designs serving as a kind of crystalline model for the contours of the male bodies. The additional reference to Ingres’ Bain Turc is equally relevant, although Ingres’ lush, curvilinear sensuality is beyond—at this point—Sleigh’s hand. The reversal of sexes reverses Ingres’ sexism into startlingly modern terms.

Sleigh plays on themes with wit and precision. The bathers in Turkish Bath are art critics: Lawrence Alloway, John Perreault, Scott Burton, and Carter Ratcliff. The sexualizing of the male, especially significant since Sleigh is a woman, is doubly intensified by making the “objective” art critics into sex objects. Sleigh’s use of art, learning its mechanical techniques and commenting upon and subverting its traditional subject matter, results in strong and intelligent work.

Laurie Anderson