Penny Slinger was born in 1947, the perfect age to bloom in the so-called Swinging Sixties, but she had already been something of a troublemaker before she had decided to become an artist, getting expelled from a convent school aged nine for tomfoolery with a sanitary towel, for example. Her parents remained very supportive of her nonetheless, and when she expressed her desire to go to art college she finally found a way to channel her muse, yet while she was determined to explore herself and her flaws and strengths, she found that not everyone was ready to hear this from a woman, and despite the progress made in equality, she was being judged more harshly than a man...
The main issue was that Slinger regarded her sexuality as a major part of her self-exploration, and in the sixties and into the seventies when she was most visible as an artist, the sexual liberation quite often was male dependent, no matter that the feminist movement was challenging traditional female roles and their regard. Were people alarmed, scared, about this woman who was using such striking, in your face imagery that was not so much erotic as it was powerful? It would appear to be the case from director Richard Kovitch's documentary, which sought to reclaim her as a vital part of the British art revolution that gave rise to pop art in the sixties, for better or worse.
The interviewees - mostly art experts and curators - are wont to note that after the freedoms of the sixties, once the next decade arrived a new conservatism made itself apparent, which is curious when you think of the seventies as an era when culture and society was wrestling with more tolerance, more rights for the previously dispossessed, and a franker discussion of various subjects that previously had been taboo. You can completely see Slinger's work as a contribution to all this, so why did this explosion of her creativity lead her to withdraw from public life and slip out of the consciousness of the art world, to the extent this film claims she virtually disappeared?
Well, she is in this, and interviewed extensively, a cheery enough presence obviously happy to discuss her work and her life, and how they combined, not in a setting the record straight kind of way, you do not take away the impression she had scores to settle, more in a "I'm fine, thanks for asking" manner. This documentary was made at a time when there was renewed interest in her art, so could be approached as a reclamation of her importance as a scene setter for female artists, and indeed any creative women, who arrived later. Yet something so intensely psychological cannot help but drag up a few demons, and you can discern all this delving into the inner world took its toll so that Slinger, who put herself out there so nakedly (literally and figuratively), felt rejected when not enough people took her on her own terms.
This was a low budget film, so most of that had extended to a bunch of talking heads (including filmmaker Peter Whitehead, who had been Slinger's partner for some years) and a plethora of pans and zooms across the artwork in question, which was undoubtedly retaining its importance and vigour. Not pornographic since there was an intellectual searching to its content, but certainly explicit, what you could judge from items like her book An Exorcism, possibly her most celebrated, was that no matter how far you brought out those demons and matters you felt shaped you, there was no guarantee these efforts would help: art was not necessarily catharsis, if anything by focusing on your problems it could magnify and amplify them, leaving you laid bare to the not necessarily welcome opinions of many, many others. Despite Slinger coming across as content and at peace with herself in this, the fact she retreated and refused to engage with the wider artworld after so exposing herself speaks volumes about how tricky the subject of self-expression can be. Music by Psychological Strategy Board (ambient stuff).
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