Penny Slinger: Reclaiming the feminine

Penny Slinger has been making radical work about female representation since the 1960s. The artist talks to Artimage about the starting points of her work, the influence of Surrealism, and feminine consciousness.

Penny Slinger: Reclaiming the feminine


At what point did you realise you wanted to become an artist?

When I was a child it was evident I had natural artistic ability from an early age. Apparently I made a very accomplished drawing of my parents at age four and half. Their pride in sharing it was only diminished by the fact that they were both depicted naked and fully sexually endowed! I was precocious, curious and easily bored. Artistic expression became a means for me to escape boredom and loneliness and to find focus and purpose at any time. I always felt 'different' and art became my tool for channeling that differentness into meaningful expression. I knew that I was an artist and that it was my destiny in life while still a child. I came to see that as a blessing as for so many in life it is hard for them to know their path. For me it was always certain.

Flying In Dreams From 50 The Visible Woman Series 1969 Penelope Slinger

Are there any artists, traditions or movements that have particularly influenced you?

While a student I found artists who impacted me. When at Farnham School of Art (now West Surrey) and studying drafting, I was particularly impressed by Giacometti and Egon Schiele. Although they are stylistically very different, (Giacometti working deeply building up his image with many layers of lines as he sought to penetrate the essence of his subject, Schiele capturing the feeling of the being with elegant linear simplicity), they both achieved a deep emotional connection to the life force of those they portrayed in their work, which radically raised the bar from pure representation. I also felt a deep connection to ancient art, especially the art of Egypt and the East. 

While at Chelsea College of Art I was fortunate enough to have Alan Jones as a teacher and his incisive intelligence, wit and bold embracing of sexual imagery definitely impacted me. It was while I was preparing for my thesis at Chelsea that I discovered and fell in love with Surrealism, in particular the work of Max Ernst, focusing on his collage books Une Semaine de Bonte and La Femme 100 Tetes. These collages were crafted from old engravings and fascinated me in their ability to take images and recruit them into seamless new magical realities. I found them mythic and epic and I felt he was speaking my language.

Circe From 50 The Visible Woman Series 1969 Penelope Slinger

In the early 1970s, some years after graduating I went to the first major exhibition of Tantric Art in the UK, at the Hayward Gallery. This was the next seminal experience and I felt I 'recognized' this visual and symbolic language in a very deep way. My art ever since has woven these threads of Surrealism and Tantra into the core of its fabric. Only later did I discover the work of Frida Kahlo. She is a special favorite of mine due to the intensity of her self-observation and the heroic journey of her life and art.

What led you to work in collage?

From the time I tuned into the collage work of Max Ernst, I started using collage as my primary means of expression, whether in photomontage or three dimensional works including life casts (which I saw as the 3D form of photography). Part of my thesis presentation was the production of my own book of photo-collage, entitled 50% the Visible Woman. I wanted to use the tools offered by Surrealism to probe and lay bare the psyche of the feminine. I wanted this to be very real, very visceral, so I felt photographic collage was the perfect way to do that. My tribute to Max Ernst was not just in the words of the thesis, but in the montage film I made about his work and in my own artistic expression, embodied in the collage series I created in my book.

Larval Worm From 50 The Visible Woman Series 1969 Penelope Slinger

Where do you find your images and what do you look for? Do you have an idea in mind of the resulting image you want to achieve, or is it more a process of starting with an image that interests you and seeing where it takes you?

I have worked on several series of photographic collages, namely 50% The Visible Woman (1971), An Exorcism (1977), Mountain Ecstasy (1978) and 64 Dakini Oracle (2010). In each case, my practice has varied, according to the criteria I set for the project. 

Compromise To Form A Solution From 50 The Visible Woman Series 1969 Penelope Slinger

In 50%, I describe my approach as 'full frontal', meaning that I was not always focused on depth perception. The orientation was more towards bringing elements together in a challenging and provocative way, in alignment with the Surrealist dictum of a sewing machine and an umbrella brought together to make love on an operating table. The 'shock value' was often foremost in my consciousness and I sought to get viewers to reevaluate the way they saw women in the way I put images together. I often used my own image in my work, seeking to put myself in the position of both subject and object, the perceived and the perceiver, thereby confounding the objectification of woman in art. So I had my boyfriend take photos of me for me to use in this way, I took photos of my girlfriend Su and then I used any image I could lay my hands on in any magazine or book that would help manifest the workings of my mind, the sensations of my body. The process of creating the collage would be a combination of intention and 'divine accident', ie letting the elements play together until they found their 'perfect alignment'.

Tribunal 1970 77 Penelope Slinger

In the Exorcism series, my discipline was more focused on photographs taken by myself or of myself, specifically for the project. This series was created using the rooms and grounds of an empty mansion to be the 'set', so spatial relationships were more key here. As always, I let my collage elements, my participants, 'dance' together until their positions seemed to represent a frozen moment that described a certain state of being, or response to a specific situation. In this work of self-exploration, I was using collage to depict psychic atmospheres of my being.

Mountain Ecstasy 1976 77 Penelope Slinger

The third series, Mountain Ecstasy went to the other end of the spectrum and used nearly all 'found images' rather than my own photographs. It was in full colour in contrast to the predominantly black and white palette of An Exorcism. The intention in this series was to reflect the revelations I had in discovering the all-inclusive path of Tantra, and expresses a pantheistic view of reality, a Surrealism that is transpersonal, where everything is part and parcel of an erotic creative unfolding.

Isis 2001 2010 Penelope Slinger

In the 64 Dakini Oracle series I worked with digital collage rather than cut and paste. The main subject matter of each collage were women transformed and photographed by me in my studio.

What was it like to be a female artist back in the 1960s and 1970s, creating work about the female body and psyche and using your own image? Were people receptive? Did you encounter sexism?

A mixed bag of reception! But I learnt early on that art cannot be made to please people. You have to banish those thoughts from your mind and just 'shoot from the hip', creating what comes from dancing to the beat of your own drum. You will never get to please everyone anyway, especially if you are trying to do something new. I came to view the 'negative' reactions as valuable as the positive ones, eliciting a reaction was what I sought, no matter the nature of the response.

And that response varied a lot. Fortunately I was able to get encouragement from enlightened and open minded individuals like Sir Roland Penrose, who I met while still at Chelsea. He 'recognized' who I was, saw my talent and viewed me in the mode of the Surrealist muse. That helped bolster my resolve when facing the inevitable challenging responses of others.

Wedding Invitation 1973 Penelope Slinger

I did take a different stance from the mainstream of feminism at the time. The feminist movement then was looking by and large to get the same rights and privileges as men and, in the process, definitely played down their more feminine qualities. I always felt I wanted women, and using myself as the template, to be recognised for all they were, all the qualities that made them women, to include their sexuality, sensuality and intuitive faculties. I felt it was these things that made women equal (if not superior!) to men. I didn't want to be viewed as a sex object, but I sure as hell was into presenting myself as a 'sex subject', the mistress of my own psycho-sexual identity. 

Of course men often came on to me because I showed my naked body publicly, but I stuck to my ground and held fast to the idea that it was time to own one's whole being as a woman and not be shortchanged into just 'giving men what they want'. And my art always gave more than they bargained for and hopefully showed up a few out worn preconceptions.

Why do think there has been a resurgence of interest now, over four decades later?

I believe this is because the recognition and reclaiming of the feminine is one of the central issues of our times, and the refining of what that means is a process. It is the redefinition of our sexual nature after years of suppression and overlays of shame. It’s interesting as in a way I too have 'returned home' to some of these themes myself of late, after decades of exploring other realities. In my view much of feminism has 'come of age' and has a more inclusive sweep than in those early days of the '60s and '70s. There is also the aspect of maturation than has happened for myself and keys me into the last part of my offerings, in the form of art, into the pool of consciousness.

Monument To Everlasting Crucifixion From 50 The Visible Woman Series 1969 Penelope Slinger

What made you dedicate your practice to female representation? Do you see yourself as being part of the wider feminist movement?

I have always tended to see my personal issues as being symbolic of and representational of collective issues. Being the kind of person who spends a lot of time looking at the bigger picture and their place within it, I believe I can claim that for myself. When I looked through the history of art, I saw representations of the female form being a solid theme and thread throughout. But generally these were women seen through the eyes, the lens, of men. I felt that it was about time this perspective shifted and women came 'out of the shadows' and revealed how they saw themselves, no holds barred. I realised that would take some courage, but I did not mind using myself as the subject of this experiment, for I have always had the propensity for self-examination and a refusal to take things at face value. I also felt, growing up in England, still under the pall of the 'dark ages' of sexual mores, that it was time for women to wake up and own the desires of their own bodies, not just view themselves as the play things of the male species. With the advent of the pill in the 1960s, this heralded a whole new era of sexual liberation for women, so this made for a fertile ground (!) to view things differently. As I mentioned, I was somewhat marching to the beat of my own drum at the time as most hard core feminists were not really embracing their sexuality so much. I guess they saw it as part of the male/female dynamic they were trying to escape from. I just didn't want to throw that lovely baby out with the old bathwater.

On Her Mouth You Kiss Your Own 1970 77 Penelope Slinger

In the current wave of feminism, I see many more of these aspects being embraced and integrated. Back in the day I would not call myself a 'feminist', but in the way feminism is now evolving, I can place myself there as I know I have been seminal in the liberation of the feminine in the broad and all-inclusive sense, and liberating her in men as well as in women.

A new documentary about you by Richard Kovitch recently premiered at Raindance Film Festival. How did the film come about and what can we expect?

Richard came to a talk I gave at Riflemaker Gallery in 2012. He liked what he heard and asked to interview me for a potential documentary. We set up the interview and did that while I was there, but the project deepened and expanded and was just completed this year. Richard did an amazing job of researching and documenting the things I talked about. He found just the right people to make a compelling sound track (Psychological Strategy Board) and the film has an atmosphere and experiential quality, setting it apart from the normal boring 'talking heads' format.

I hope the release of this documentary will shed some light on the pioneering work myself and other women artists did back in the 1960s and '70s, and give context to my art and the role I played in the emergence of feminine consciousness and conscious sexuality. It was not all a bed of roses! Hopefully the darkness of all the 'shadow work' I embarked on in order to free myself from the strictures of my cultural heritage and the entanglement of relationship can be viewed infused with the light at the end of the tunnel of my enduring and passionate engagement with my art practice, my survival, determination and my love of life.

Call Of The Sea 1970 77 Penelope Slinger

What other projects are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on a major project entitled 'My Body'. I have worked for many years in a more transpersonal format, but now I have come back full circle to the intensely personal. I don't want my relevance as an artist and social contributor to be diminished by my age. This society is not 'age friendly' and for women in particular, being less sexually viable is a major impediment to the way they are perceived and received. This paradigm needs to shift if we are to benefit from the enrichment that wisdom of experience brings. So I am using my body, at age 69, naked and unashamed. It hasn't changed that much.

The aspect of 'My Body' that I am currently engaged in producing are large three-dimensional collage works, featuring recent life casts of myself. These show my body in relation to various collections of things I have been working with and associating with over the last years. The group is entitled 'The Alchemy of Stuff' and represents my meditation on our connection to the elements of the material world we interact with. These works connect directly with and expand from my early works, the Headboxes and Tabletops which included life casts and other 'objets trouve' in the constructions.

Under Lock And Key 1969 Penelope Slinger

The other section of this series will be more two dimensionally orientated and presents life size collages of my body as the container for my experiences in life and spirit - my 'Body of Experience'. The two series are designed to complement each other, utilising expression in both two and three dimensional collage, the combination of modalities I have always liked to work with.

Why did you decide to join Artimage?

I was part of a panel at Art15 discussing the role of women in the field of art. Afterwards I was approached by a representative of DACS and Artimage who invited me to join. It seemed to be a sensible solution to have a renowned organisation handle my art copyright and so I was pleased to accept the offer. It has been helpful to have this support so that I am freed up to focus more on what I am best at and enjoy the most and have professionals look after these rights in an efficient and friendly way.

Open Shut Case Mouthpiece Series 1973 Penelope Slinger

View all images by Penny Slinger

Penny Slinger’s 1960s and 1970s works will be presented at Frieze London as part of‘Sex Work: Feminist Art & Radical Politics’. Find out more.

Penny Slinger: Out of the Shadows by Richard Kovitch recently premiered at Raindance Film Festival. Find out more.

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Images from top: Self Image, 1970-77, Penelope Slinger © Penelope Slinger, All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017, Image courtesy Riflemaker Contemporary Art, London, Photo: Peter Whitehead; Flying in Dreams from 50%, The Visible Woman series, 1969, Penelope Slinger © Penelope Slinger, All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017, Image courtesy Blum & Poe, Photo: Ray Whewell; Circe from 50%, The Visible Woman series, 1969, Penelope Slinger © Penelope Slinger, All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017, Image courtesy Blum & Poe; Larval Worm from 50%, The Visible Woman series, 1969, Penelope Slinger © Penelope Slinger, All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017, Image courtesy Blum & Poe, Photo: Ray Whewell; Compromise To Form a Solution from 50%, The Visible Woman series, 1969, Penelope Slinger © Penelope Slinger, All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017; Tribunal, 1970-77, Penelope Slinger © Penelope Slinger, All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017, Image courtesy Broadway 1602, Harlem. Photo: Peter Whitehead; Mountain Ecstasy, 1976-77, Penelope Slinger © Penelope Slinger, All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017; Isis, 2001-2010, Penelope Slinger © Penelope Slinger, All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017; Wedding Invitation, 1973, Penelope Slinger © Penelope Slinger, All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017, Image courtesy Broadway 1602, Harlem, Photo: Euan Duff; Monument to Everlasting Crucifixion from 50%, The Visible Woman series, 1969, Penelope Slinger © Penelope Slinger, All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017; On Her Mouth You Kiss Your Own, 1970-77, Penelope Slinger © Penelope Slinger, All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017, Image courtesy Broadway 1602, Harlem, Photo: Peter Whitehead; Call of the Sea, 1970-77, Penelope Slinger © Penelope Slinger, All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017, Photo: Peter Whitehead; Under Lock and Key, 1969, Penelope Slinger © Penelope Slinger, All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017, Photo: Peter Whitehead; Open & Shut Case, Mouthpiece series, 1973, Penelope Slinger © Penelope Slinger, All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2017, Image courtesy Riflemaker Contemporary.