Milwaukee

Sylvia Sleigh

Milwaukee Art Museum

These 19 paintings done since 1971 demonstrate the fertile if restricted nature of Sylvia Sleigh’s vision. At the core of Sleigh’s work is her canny ability to reanimate the most traditional formats of Western painting with new and charged meanings. In the ’70s her variants on the odalisque, in which she substituted a male model for the ubiquitous harem girl, were important salvos in the development of a feminist voice in painting. Utilizing precisely the pictorial voice they aim to subvert, works like Imperial Nude: Paul Rosano, 1976, turned the tables and functioned as willful correctives.

Sleigh employs various artistic genres, including single and group portraiture, mythological and religious narrative, the nude, the seraglio, and even a kind of contemporary history painting. She does not always eschew the dictates of these traditions, but approaches them obliquely, sometimes subversively exposing their often sexist histories, sometimes working comfortably within their ken. While Lilith, 1976, is a rather heavy-handed descent into the sexual ambiguities of gender, the 1979 small tondo portrait of her late husband, Lawrence Alloway, is simple and profound.

This predilection for rehabilitating conventional modes led Sleigh to create Invitation to a Voyage: The Hudson River at Fishkill, a large 14-panel work begun in 1983 and finished this year. It functions as a kind of stilted diorama, a multifigured pictorial environment that surrounds its viewer with two scenes stretched over four walls of a small room. One side is dominated by a gathering of Sleigh, her husband, and nine of their friends on the sunny shores of the upstate Hudson River. Opposite is the same congregation with a few additions, this time dispersed across a more verdant picnic area.

This is a charmed and intimate wreathing of figures. No specific moment is being depicted; we are immersed instead in a stately flow of being, a continuous chain of arcadian fragments spun together by Sleigh’s proximate realism to render an episode and hint at its larger implications. Openhandedly historicist, and wistfully cognizant of its genre, Invitation to a Voyage is a modern fête champêtre, a summer dream, realized with dappling light and pastel colors, sylvan and dizzy with possibilities.

James Yood