New York

Sylvia Sleigh

With Sylvia Sleigh, language becomes a game, a punning on the clichés of convention. Her awkward drawing, her self-consciously posed compositions, her horror vacui are by now typically Mannerist devices for subverting tradition while remaining safely inside it. But Sleigh’s toying with established figure painting techniques is less interesting than her inversions of accepted subject matter. In October it is the languorously reclining man with his flowing mane of hair who entices one, not the woman rigidified and upright in her pinstriped dress. While Botticelli is the direct compositional mentor in this transformation of Mars into Venus, the presentation of Paul Rosano as the ideal embodiment of manhood, as well as the detailed decorativeness of the floral background, suggest a play on pre-Raphaelite sensibilities. Similarly in Paul Reclining and Double Image Rosano serves as the male equivalent of the sensuous woman. The attentive description of the patterns of body hair emphasizes tacti le sensuality in a parody of the classical rendition of smoothly soft skin. It is important that Rosano never emerges as a person from these paintings. He is an idea of perfection—only male instead of female.

A different shift in sex roles occurs in Sleigh’s paintings of women. Her large double portrait of the members of Soho 20 reveals the separate individuality of the sitters through a focus on the disparate colors, textures, and patterns of their clothing. No one woman stands out from the others; they are all equally assertive. All of which sounds like a diatribe for the woman’s movement. And perhaps that is the problem I find with Sleigh’s works. Throughout there is a conscious reversal of art expectations to click one into a simplistic political-sexual awareness. Sleigh’s language is grounded in the surprise of twists in traditional visual formulae. Yet, as with a pun, once the information is received, it is soon exhausted.

Susan Heinemann