Wednesday 8 August 2018

Penny Slinger: Out of the Shadows (UK 2017: Dir Richard Kovitch)

The success of any documentary about living artists is very much dependent on the subject; writing about art documentaries even more so because of the lack of available visual context in a review.

Thankfully Richard Kovitch's documentary about 'missing' British artist Penny Slinger has the advantage of the subject eloquently and extensively narrating her story, sharing ideas about her art and the times she has lived through.

Slinger isn't missing at all - her light burnt brightly in British art circles, particuarly the decade from 1967 to 1977, but she chose to absent herself from the UK, now living a seemingly idyllic life in California, without the need to explain herself and her work.

But Kovitch's film concentrates on the first thirty odd (and sometimes very odd) years of her life, from her errant schoolgirl life in south London to her development as an artist at London's Chelsea College of Arts and later the Royal College of Art. The documentary captures an artist arriving, if not fully formed, but with a clear idea of what she wanted to convey, if not necessarily the medium in which she wanted to convey it; anything from collages, sculptures and even taxidermy. Ironically Slinger was warned off pursuing collage as a means of artistic expression - the late 1960s being all done with the (male) surrealists who championed this approach - but ultimately it is this medium that has produced her most defining work.

One of the difficulties in describing a very different time (ie the late 1960s/early 1970s) - and particularly the position of women in art during this period - is in understanding just how difficult it must have been for a female artist to achieve her vision. The suggestion that as a woman Slinger should naturally be someone's muse ("I wanted to be my own muse," she says at one point) came to a head in her relationship with Peter Whitehead, and it's here that the documentary gains real interest, and departs from the danger of simply being a narrated list of names and dates.

Their relationship began in 1969 with Whitehead whisking her off to the sprawling pile in which he was living, Lilford Hall in Northamptonshire. It was clearly a complicated one, not without love, and which left a lasting impression on Slinger. In the documentary Whitehead seems to take a practical approach to the relationship, seeing the artist and her work as a curated project (even filming them both for an abandoned movie); for Slinger, her reaction to Whitehead and indeed the derelict house in which she was living was more profound and resonant, resulting in the extended collages that made up the sprawling 'An Exorcism' work, utilising Whitehead and her close friend Suzanka Fraey. Slinger used the house as an extended metaphor for her own body, and the images comprising this work, sympathetically soundtracked by Psychological Strategy Board's analogue rumblings, are fantastic and still surprising examples of, as one critic puts it, "when Englishness goes weird."

It's difficult to know to what extent Slinger's reaction to Lilford Hall and the Whitehead years was a response to living with the artist or to the wider issues of the status of women in art generally. As Slinger says "the personal is political," and her subsequent filmed work with the late Jane Arden, who was a major influence in helping her expand her artistic ideas, demonstrates the extent to which she initially embraced the director's radical feminist agenda, then walked away, finding its constraints limiting.

While Out of the Shadows is successful is conveying the reality of the artistic struggle during this period, with the exception of Slinger the talking heads providing the context are rather austere and distant, treating the artist more like a delicate museum piece than a living breathing person. The latter sections of the documentary work best, but what stands out clearly overall is Slinger's work, still challenging now, and her striking use of varied and contrasting images and forms. The artist's composed presence on screen, serene and always faintly smiling, belies the devoted and radical artist within, but I'd like to have seen less reserve and more excitement in celebrating her diverse and stimulating output.     

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