50% the Visible Woman (Narcis Publishing Limited, 1971)
(Fortnight Institute, NY February 8 – March 17, 2019)
Penny Slinger was studying at Chelsea College of Art when she discovered Max Ernst's collage books. Ernst's printmaking and collage remains a landmark in artistic and literary publishing. While Slinger was inspired by his techniques of visual narrative and exciting juxtapositions, she was also struck by his poor representations of women, shared by most of the male-dominated Surrealist milieu. "Having discovered the magic of surrealism, I wanted to employ its tools and methods to create a language for the feminine psyche to express itself," Slinger explains on her website. In 1969, she produced the book 50% the Visible Woman as her thesis project, which was eventually published several years later. It consisted of black-and-white photocollages featuring a woman's body (sometimes her own), each proceeded by a vellum page of text—poetic phrases that curl and weave in communication with the image below it. It's an example of an image-text collage novel at its best, fully integrating words and pictures into a complete poetic narrative about a woman searching for ways to escape an artistic and cultural gaze, a dream like story that captures the uncanny quality of surrealism, but one that reclaims the female body from its previous position as a vehicle of service.
The book is broken into twelve chapters: The Object, In the Beginning, Embodying the Void, The Armour, The Masks, The Earth Goddess / Eve and the Serpent, The Winged Sun-Disc / The Riddle, The Orgiastic Rite, The Disemboweling, A Messy Birth, The Pure Gold Baby, and The Hermaphrodite. In the opening chapter, the title "THE OBJECT" appears in bold across the top. The background image shows a woman on a pedestal, like a statue, before an auditorium of male onlookers who admire and judge her. The text over her body reads:
1. Define the object of objectification.
2. Delineate participation.
3. Detach the dancer from the dances.
4. Exhibit the irony of analysis.
And then, at the very bottom of the page across the base of the pedestal, number five, "What divides the 'man' from the 'boys'?" Slinger appropriates the style and themes of male surrealist artists—woman's body as object, dream-state as entrance into the unconscious, and sexual and bodily desires—but twists them around, questioning the ways in which personhood is removed from subjects in art (and much of criticism as well): "Detach the dancer from the dances." This sentiment echoes throughout the book. Slinger shows us the "irony of analysis" that subjugates participants, but also separates the creator from content, an extremely prescient point today as we grapple with the poor choices of once lauded artists.
In other spreads the words more fully integrate with the image. In one photocollage a woman stands dressed in black, her body blending into the backdrop of the image, with multiple hands grabbing and caressing her. On the vellum, "Caressing or mutilating" appears in a curved shape along the edges of her face, enacting the action they describe. Further down the page, "I am the fleshy octopus / turned in / voluptuous / to its core" and "I am a woman / frightened / by the dark" as the darkness of the image visually swallows her body.
In another work a headless nude female figure sits atop of a clothed woman's body, appearing where the clothed woman's head should be. The clothed woman's face dangles between her legs, like a mask neatly sliced from her form. This highlights the over-emphasis of the sensual nude and demonstrates an awareness of collage as a violent form that separates and rejoins. As Slinger writes on this page, "A collage exploits itself / a corner / seeking identity / in its absence of form." Slinger's image-text combinations not only play with the nuances of merging the two forms, but use collage to mirror the violence done to women's bodies and their desperate desire to fit back together.
A selection of the collages from the book were recently displayed as color c-prints, made from the original color collages, in a solo exhibition at Fortnight Institute, NY (February 8 – March 17, 2019). On the walls of the gallery, the work is shockingly contemporary, the themes still resonate with today's cultural climate. The images fill the space well and as enlarged color prints, they give the viewer appropriate space to consider their visual complexity. Don't Look At Me… (1969/2014), which serves as the title page for "The Armour" chapter in the book, in color in the gallery more clearly illustrates Slinger's choice of source materials—the green grass and grey-blue ocean sharply contrasting with the black-and-white figure in the foreground. But the show is missing what is most innovate about this work—her integration of poetics. While the images hold their own as stand-alone works, their meaning is enhanced when joined with texts, and show Slinger's expertise in both the visual and verbal arts.
On the final page of the book, a man's body is layered over a woman's, her pensive face glancing down at her figure. The text on the page begins, "Compromise to form / a solution" recalling how often throughout history women were forced to accommodate men. The final lines of this page, and the book proclaim, "With each new beginning / We open a book . . ." demonstrating the intentionality of the book form in Slinger's presentation. The metaphor of the book, filled with multiple chapters and new beginnings, is paired with the narrative of a woman, trying over and over to find ways to fit into a culture set on objectifying her. Collage becomes not just an aggressive act of tearing apart, but also a "Reconciliation / the collage which / laminates" giving us hope for a new beginning with a happier ending.