Neill Slaughter and Painting’s Pleasure Principle
by Gordon L. Fuglie
From his first drawing and painting classes at the University of Georgia to his recent autumnal woods-and-stream landscapes, Neill Slaughter has employed the alchemy of paint to render his experiences of the world. He owes this to the “classical training” from his student days that led him to embrace painting as the medium of his artistic vocation. It is well to reiterate that training and technical mastery doth not alone a painter make. Slaughter’s 30-year vocation is marked by crosscurrents of contemporary Romanticism, especially an art historical consciousness engaged with a constantly changing world in varied circumstances. His is also a career of multiple points of departure along modernist and post-modernist trajectories.
Concurrent with Slaughter’s decision in the mid 1970s to take up brush and pigments was the rise of Theory in Europe and the United States. Preferring photographic and conceptual, strategies in contemporary art, i.e., text over imagery, Theory’s “theorists” put easel painting under withering criticism, pronouncing the medium historically passé, even dead. Originating in Europe, Theory was (and is) a witches’ brew of Marxism, Structuralism, and Post-Structuralism that reduced art to “cultural production,” or mere simulacra, according to Theory’s arch-hierophant Jean Baudrillard.1 In the US, it began to infect academic humanities programs around 1980, hastening the collapse of the ancien régime of Late Modernism. As Theory gained ground in art circles, the Marxist academic Benjamin H. D. Buchloh published his critique of the “revival” of large figurative paintings by European artists in the New York journal October in 1981.2 Buchloh excoriated the proliferation of new figurative canvases as “a fetishization of painting in the cult of the peinture,” wherein they “fulfill[ed] their function as the luxury products of a fictitious high culture.”3 A fulminatory outpouring of 30 pages, the October article coagulated into a prohibitive manifesto against easel painting.
It had the opposite effect, however, and was largely ignored by painters – and certainly by Slaughter who had just completed an ambitious series of figure paintings of his friends and colleagues. Indeed, for the last 20 years, easel painting in myriad formats and styles has grown worldwide to achieve a kind of hegemony (if I may ironically borrow from Marxist terminology) in the art world. Slaughter and his fellow painters have since demonstrated that rumors of painting’s demise were greatly exaggerated. We’ve given ourselves permission to take pleasure in paintings again.
Theory’s “radical criticality” was not the only challenge facing a painter like Slaughter. In the 1970s the long hand (gestural or otherwise) of abstraction still reached into painting’s precincts after 30 years of ascendancy in the US. Abstractionists rejected brush-applied pigments – whether deliberate or spontaneous – to represent the observable world, dismissing this approach as hidebound tradition. Self-defined progressive painting had more singular goals, such as expressing the artist’s feelings and bodily movements upon the canvas (Jackson Pollock), or exploiting its pure liquidity (Pollock again, and Morris Louis), or affirming that painting was essentially nothing but a “mere thing,” composed of inert pigment applied to a flat plane (Frank Stella).
Nevertheless, despite the momentum of the abstract agenda, the tradition of painting as a representational mode persisted in the works of, among others, West coast figurative expressionists like David Park; James Weeks; Elmer Bischoff; and especially Wayne Thiebaud, who rendered everyday objects and human figures with a palpable geometry that was overlain with his trademark thick bas-relief modeling of pigments. Slaughter cites the influence of these painters on his early work in the 1970s, and values the guidance he received from figurative artists Robert Barnes and James McGarrell while studying at Indiana University for the Master of Fine Arts degree.
The expressively applied pigments in Vanity, a painting from 1975, constitute one of Slaughter’s first successes. Archaizing in a sense that recalls Edwardian domestic décor (note the absence of electrical devices and modern objects);
Vanity does double duty as a still-life and a figure study – the latter a painting within a painting. At the time it was made, Vanity’s comely curvaceous female lounging upon a bed risked sparking accusations from feminist art theorists suspecting Slaughter of the “petrifying, objectifying male gaze” that makes a young nude woman in a painting an object of sexual submission. The artist had no such agenda – conscious or otherwise. While the briskly and broadly limned nude may seem tainted with voyeurism, she is seen secondhand, in a mirror. Moreover, she is not present for the viewer/painter and appears to be reflecting upon something concerning her alone.
Such is not the case with the nude female in the aptly titled Confrontation (1980). The subject is the artist’s then-girlfriend Cynthia, also a figurative painter. Along with the fierce glance of the model, intensified by the bell-shape of hair and shadow, the painting is remarkable for pigment “becoming” flesh. Slaughter exploited the studio light to create vertical planes of skin that are translucent in the sun, salmon-hued in intermediate areas, and ruddy in the shadows. The strong color, bold brushwork, and the equipoise of light and dark invoke Thiebaud’s syntax of thickly applied oils; its intensity calls up the Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele. Another strength of the painting is its composition, a “one-two” with the juxtaposition of the warm, compressed triangle of the dark burgundy oriental carpet – and the bright, cool elongated triangle created by the model’s pose.
Sometimes when an artist’s temperament finds a strong bond with his subject, this connection will suffuse the atmosphere of the painting. I think this happens in Afghan, a painting completed in 1977. Slaughter admits he is “a romantic at heart,” and his portrayal of his girlfriend in a sun-gilt interior, wisps of hair aglow, attired in a gauzy, lacey pre-Raphaelite gown, effuses a hopeful, devoted sentimentality and admiration of her female beauty. She is an idealized maiden, 1970s-style, attending to her crochet work; one can almost hear the moody tinkling of a dulcimer and catch the fragrance of herb tea. The subject matter, the room, its occupant and their unity reveal another aspect of Slaughter’s romantic temperament: a nostalgic desire to know the art of the past. When I was a colleague of Neill’s in Los Angeles in 1990, our conversations about art history were frequently energized by his passionate accounts of great paintings he saw in his travels. His was no mere nostalgia, a melancholic wistful yearning for a past carefully preserved in one’s fantasy life. To the contrary, Slaughter’s nostalgia desires a living connection with the tradition of great painting from the 19th and 20th centuries, especially the fin-de-siècle and early 20th century. To know this tradition means for him the capacity to operate deeply within and out of it, his sure guide to making art in and of the present. It is a nostalgia suffused in art historical consciousness; Slaughter also teaches 19th century art history. The antecedent of Afghan can be found in Edouard Vuillard’s intimiste middle-class interiors with their shimmering play of patterns in bedspreads, upholstery, carpets and curtains.
In 1978, Slaughter became affiliated with the Richard Demarco Gallery (now the Demarco European Art Foundation) in Scotland. Demarco is an effusive sketcher of Scottish landscapes, gallery owner and indefatigable promoter of contemporary art, especially the Edinburgh arts festivals. Sensing in Slaughter a companionable artistic sensibility, Demarco dubbed him a “defender of traditionalism” in painting. (By traditionalism Demarco does not imply that there is a conservative, academic or historicizing tendancy in Slaughter’s work. He is recognizing the artist’s capacity to continue the legacy of traditional modernist subject matter: the figure, portraiture and landscape – including exotic locales.) In his role as
a cultural impresario, the Scot in 1980 invited a number of artists, including Slaughter, to sail around the British Isles on a three-masted sailing ship, christened the Marques. Slaughter came on board with his sketchbook and drawing materials; he was enraptured by the “energy and turbulence, the constantly shifting movement, as well as the incredible complexity of sails and rigging.” He observed in “the intricate geometry of masts, spars and rigging reaching from sea to sky” a dynamic “kaleidoscopic mosaic of patterns.”
Certainly the opportunity to crew the Marques evoked the nautical romances of wooden ships and iron men, the call of the sea to a young American artist hungry for experience of wilder natural phenomena. But the pitching and yawing of the ship and constant attention to the rise and fall of the wind, the anxious anticipation of shifting currents, disabused Slaughter of painting yet another “classic” profile view of a ship poised upon the bounding main – a static genre that accumulates in maritime museums.
Instead, the artist found himself searching for a personal visual language to match his experience. The work Slaughter calls his “Sailing Series” shares some sensibilities with early modernist Romanticism, the movement in 19th century art and literature that extolled the lone artist’s forays into the unstable and unknown territory of surprise, enigma, awe, terror, the uncanny and the exotic. Maritime subjects infused with these sensibilities – shipwrecks, storm-tossed boats, ghost ships and other evocations of the dreaded mysteries of seafaring – were vividly milked by painters of the Romantic era. As a late 20th-century man aboard a 19th century sailing vessel plying the North Sea, Slaughter simply could not “re-do” J.M.W. Turner,4 but he could alter his identity as a representational painter to deploy other modern styles to capture the shifting kaleidoscope of patterns of shipboard life.
Turbulent Topsails (1981) in its multiple array of wind-filled canvases, recalls the dynamic pictorial devices of Italian Futurism. The most radical work from the series, however, is Harbor Entry (1981), a work in which Slaughter forswears his classic training to loosely cast an abstract skein of sails, masts, rigging, sea and sky.
After living and teaching in England for a time, Slaughter returned to the US, teaching in art departments at St. Cloud University in Minnesota and at California State University, Long Beach, moving on to Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in West Los Angeles in 1987, where I first met him.
Shortly after arriving at LMU, he was awarded a university travel grant to Africa to gather source material that would eventually culminate in a protracted series Slaughter called Africa America Amalgamation (AAA). Binary in its concept of deploying one canvas next to the other, AAA impacts the viewer with ironic juxtapositions of the civilized first world (social life in the U.S.) with “un-civilized” life from deep in the African bush. In three of the paintings – Village Life Same as it Never Was, Graveyard and Waterhole – Slaughter composes the juxtaposition within a single canvas.
When it was shown at the Parrish Art Museum in 1994, Village Life Same as it Never Was drew accolades from exhibition jurors Elizabeth Sussman (a curator at the Whitney Museum in NYC) and Manhattan gallerist Holly Solomon. They appreciated the raw “confrontation” of African villagers gaping in disbelief at decaying buildings used as “crack dens” and streets strewn with bullet-riddled cars. Along similar lines, Graveyard packs a social surrealist double-punch; it is at once environmentally tragic and at the same time a satire of First World over-consumption. Waterhole, with its fluent shade-dappled river, arranges three privileged Western white women whose semi-nudity is a contrived sexualized pose for an appraising male gaze – hence a “guilty pleasure” because of its staged unnaturalness. The artist places these water-averse beauties within arm’s reach of three virile, naked African men who, with their elephant herd, have matter-of-factly stripped to bathe in the river, as if doing so were the most natural thing in the world. And for them it is: water means life in the African bush. Waterhole’s figural opposition ventures into the same anxious racial and sexual terrain explored in Claire Denis’s film of the last French colonial days of Cameroon, Chocolat, coincidentally produced in 1989, the same year of Slaughter’s painting.
Likewise sexually provocative is Dance Fever, composed in the two-canvas format. At right is a vignette evoking a hot night at New York’s notoriously exclusive Studio 54. Svelte dancers (who were privileged to be admitted by bouncers policing admissions of cool and beautiful people) gyrate to a synthesized percussive beat, exchanging suggestive glances under the lurid lights. According to Slaughter, the female in the revealing lavender dress registers the viewer with a lascivious grin. The dancing is just part of the evening’s package of promiscuous sex, alcohol, cocaine and other substance abuse that was prevalent among yuppies (young urban professionals), a new class that arose in booming American cities in the 1980s.
In contrast to this urban Bacchanal, the event on the left is an African Zulu fertility dance. It takes place in the open, in the center of the village. The entire community – men, women and children – has a role in a ceremony to promote the fecundity of the village and its crops. The Zulu dance is literally an inclusive celebration of life, a propitiatory down payment on the community’s good future.
By weighting its sympathies towards Africa in Africa America Amalgamation, that is, seeing its subjects idealistically or living within the natural rhythms of life (implying the “noble savage” of Romanticism, or at least a certain innocence), Slaughter leads his viewers into his critique of the excesses of American society.
While living in Los Angeles, Slaughter turned his attention to the portrayal of the Southern California landscape, an environment of extremes, which was surprisingly overdue for artistic discovery. He was not alone in this effort that had been led by James Doolin (a former abstractionist who converted to a realist mode) and his wife, Lauren Richardson, as well as Peter Alexander, Carlos Almaraz, Jim Murray and the Mexican expatriate Victor Hugo Zayas. All of these observant artists – including Slaughter – were intrigued by the aesthetic potential of sprawling urban grids, and especially the freeway cloverleafs and labyrinthine over- and underpasses that constituted Southern California’s freeway system.
Slaughter’s approach, the expressive alla prima painting method for urban subjects favored by America’s “Ashcan School,” looks novel when applied to vistas of sweeping concrete conduits of freeway architecture. They are simultaneously beautiful, breathtaking and ironic, as in Merger and Confluence; the latter is arguably the masterwork of the series. I would further argue that they contain vestiges of the Romantic sublime as daunting, dominant occupants of the landscape. More reassuring to traditionalists were the paintings that gave equal weight to the natural surroundings of bridges and freeways, such as two works Slaughter painted at the base of Pasadena’s gracefully arched, WPA-era Colorado Street Bridge (Colorado Street Bridge and Bridging the Gap).
A year before he decamped for New York in 1993, Slaughter was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to spend four months in India. The artist, who is of English, Irish and Scottish descent, seemed to be following the grand old tradition of Victorian and Edwardian artists who trekked to Egypt, the Holy Land, the Near East and South Asia in search of “exotic” subjects in the age of Empire. Armed with pencils, watercolors, a notepad and a camera, Slaughter’s encounter with India was not all that different from his artistic forebears. He was transfixed upon the subcontinent because he perceived it as “a place where time has stood still.” While this perception was basically confirmed in places like Calcutta, Slaughter (like others before him) was not prepared for what he calls “the assault upon one’s senses at every turn.” So deep was the impression of India on his artistic psyche that he continued to produce work from his sojourn up to 2000.
Civilization Sinking is a canvas from 1997 that depicts a mix of ancient monuments and daily life on the Ganges River. Low-slung rowboats ply the currents or disembark at crumbling waterside steps; the painting seems to have been composed from the prow of the boat in right foreground. Along the shore and upon the slopes are a number of temple towers, some of which are submerging into the Ganges. They are alarmingly cheek by jowl to a pile of imposing tenement blocks and porticos – a collision of the sacred and the profane, and a startling juxtaposition between the edifices of a historically rich civilization and the impoverished shanty towns of the present.
More stately and classical is Gathering at the Ganges Ghats (2000), a watercolor in modulated grays and warm tones. Against a monumental stone backdrop of steps and platforms, men, women and children cleanse themselves (and their souls) in the silvery waters of the Ganges. Slaughter sees this activity with great irony: the Ganges is one of the world’s most polluted rivers. Among his India series, Gathering most strongly invokes the tradition of itinerant 19th-century English topographical artists and their desire to convey the otherness of far-flung colonies for audiences in the British Isles.
Slaughter’s early interest in using pattern to impart complexity and staccato rhythms of color to his images certainly was reinforced by Indian culture. While in Jaipur, Rajasthan, the artist marveled at the vividly hued, intricate ornamentations decorating the portals of the civic palace complex. Golden Door – Jaipur Palace, a small genre scene painted in 2000, exploits via a sectional view the intense patterning of one of the portals for which the complex is renowned. Slaughter wisely included one of the palace attendants, whose relaxed presence in pure white acts as a pressure valve, letting off some of the horror vacui that might otherwise dominate the composition.
A completely different pictorial sensibility occurs in Manpower, an oil and acrylic from 1996. The artist employs a detached bird’s eye view of a fleeting moment on a Calcutta street scene to convey the still widespread use of human force in moving people and materiel through the city’s teeming thoroughfares. Within the vertical composition, horizontal elements – the long boards on the rickshaw, the tree trunk on the wagon – emphasize the thrust of the men’s labor and bring to mind the 19th- century French painter Gustave Caillebotte’s The Floorscrapers, a work composed of lunging laborers toiling over an expansive pattern of wooden floor boards.5
In the wake of his India painting, Slaughter’s work since 2003 literally has been closer to home: the landscape of the eastern US. These are of two types: the landscaped parks of America’s cities and the natural terrain of woods and rivers.
Of the former are Bethesda Terrace – Central Park and Fountain Flight, both watercolors from 2003. They depict the same area of New York’s Central Park with Bethesda Terrace providing an overall view of the landscape architecture, and Fountain Flight treating the fountain and its sculpture as a separate subject. The genesis for these watercolors emerged from Slaughter’s response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, particularly his dismay with the ongoing national obsession over the destruction and casualties. As a resident of Southampton, NY, the artist also maintains a pied-à-terre in New York, and is a frequenter of the its cultural sites. To break out of the morbid memorial fixation on the loss of lives and property, Slaughter decided to celebrate the beauty of the vital public areas of Manhattan that continue to anchor the city’s cultural life and where people can move about as free citizens. One discerns in these works the influence of the watercolors of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who Slaughter admires for his poetics of the interplay of the effects of light and water upon various surfaces.
On the other hand, a tinge of melancholy marks the natural landscapes Blue Afternoon and November Morning, both oils. They have in common a robust brushwork with American Impressionism. But unlike its early 20th-century California variant (Slaughter spent ten years in California and knows these works well) that portrayed the natural areas of the Golden State with a sunny high-key, high noon palette – extolling the untrammeled Edenic beauty of seacoast, glade, arroyo or mountain range – Slaughter chose somber autumnal settings for New England’s watersheds. Here the leaves have browned and fallen; the lush undergrowth of summer has died away revealing ancient boulders and fallen logs; the rivers are running low and still – ice forms at the shore line; days are shorter, shadows longer, light thinner. These landscapes could be metaphors for our mortality; we go silent in their presence. If not in their style, there is in them something of the sensibility of the brooding landscapes of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (1744-1840), whose views of nature always mean more than appears to the eye. In Slaughter’s New England riverscapes, we find ourselves at the water’s edge reflecting on our lives, our loves, and inevitable losses.6
So does he – literally. In 2007 Slaughter posed himself seated in profile near a boulder-strewn creek trickling into a river below. The result is Looking Back (also the title of his 30-year retrospective exhibition). The palette is restricted to browns, grays and blues, with white energizing the artist’s shirt and prematurely ashen hair. Poetically, Slaughter holds a forked branch, suggesting those poignant crossroads that loom large in middle age. Strong-jawed, he gazes purposively, as if coming to terms with his vocation 30 years on. Will he be blessed with another 30 years of plying the painter’s craft?
When an artist has a retrospective, it is inevitable for visitors to the exhibition to want to do their own “stocktaking” of the works on display or published in its catalog. On the occasion of Looking Back, I ask them to consider this about Neill Slaughter. At the outset of his career, and against the prevailing tides of the art world, he chose to be a representational painter. He has endured to be vindicated in that choice. For the last 30 years he has sought a connection to art history (even teaching it), welcoming the influence of painters like Sargent, Anders Zorn (1860-1920) and Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923) at a time when they enjoyed scant recognition in the art historical canon.7 Moreover, his admiration for these artists is in earnest and is in refreshing contrast to the passing fad of ironic, insincere “appropriation” (i.e. borrowing, or quoting, as a pastiche) from the art of the past that marked contemporary art in the 1980s and 1990s. (Newsweek art critic Peter Plagens rightly called ironic appropriation a “fail-safe strategy enabling [legions of] mediocre artists to feel superior both to their predecessors and to their own subject matter.”8) Further, most artists – painters or not – look for an exploitable “groove” early on and stay within it for the bulk of their careers. Slaughter, however, started with figures posed in interiors and moved on to: abstractions from his sailing experience; socially critical, satirical juxtapositions of life in Africa and the US; landscape studies of Southern California freeways; genre travel scenes from India; landscapes of rural New England and urban Manhattan; before arriving at introspective self-portraiture in mid-career.
My sense of Slaughter is that he has accomplished such an unusual range of work because he is simultaneously grounded in a vital, revered tradition (inspired by Sargent, Zorn and Sorolla’s works, ca. 1890-1910) and practices painting from a Romantic temperament – albeit filtered through post-modernism.9 If the essence of a Romantic is to see life and the world through a wide array of stimuli, opportunities and challenges, then the highly varied subjects – from three continents, the British Isles and the high seas – of Slaughter’s career are a contemporary incarnation of Romantic individuality. Finally, Romanticism is historically located in Europe between 1815 and 1848, and was seen as shattering the “fixities” and “definities” that shaped European art and culture since Greco-Roman times, breaking with the past. I find it intriguing – dare I say ironic – that in our age Slaughter has disciplined his Romantic temperament with… tradition.
Gordon L. Fuglie
“It is no wonder that painters can be so entranced by paint. Substances occupy the mind profoundly, tethering moods to thoughts, tangling stray feelings with the movements of the body, engaging the full capacity of response and concentrating it on unpromising lumps of paint and color. There is no meaning that cannot seem to flow from the paint itself. From the spectator’s standpoint, looking at finished paintings, marks can become eloquent records of the painter’s body, and through the body come undependable but powerful ideas about the painter’s feelings and moods. Paint incites motions, or the thought of motions, and through them it implies emotions and other wordless experiences. That is why painting is a fine art: not merely because it gives us trees and faces and lovely things to see, but because paint is a finely tuned antenna, reacting to every unnoticed movement of the painter’s hand, fixing the faintest shadow of a thought in color and texture.”
James Elkins, What Painting Is (New York: Routledge, 1999) pp. 192 – 93.
1 For a critique of Baudrillard, see Robert Hughes, Nothing if Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), pp. 375 – 387. See also Jean Baudrillard, America, tr. Chris Turner (New York: Verso Press, 1989)
2 Benjamin H. D Buchloh, “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression,” October, no. 16 (Spring 1981): 39 – 68. The essay is reprinted in Brian Wallis, Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation (New York: David R. Godine Publ, 1984)
4 Museum goers will recall J.M.W. Turner’s numerous atmospherically moody seascapes, Théodore Gericault’s The Raft of the ‘Medusa’ (1819) and Théodore Gudin’s The Devotion of Captain Desse (1830).
5 Caillebotte (1848-94) painted The Floorscrapers in 1875. It is now in the Louvre, Paris.
6 On his landscapes Slaughter has said: “I want to make something substantial out of the camouflaged chaos of nature that is both contemplative and therapeutically soothing to the soul.” To touch the innermost being of the viewer, reach his/her feelings, is the endeavor of the Romantic artist.
7 Thanks to a number of important scholarly exhibitions since 1980, Sargent has shed his undeserved narrow reputation as a facile portraitist of the blueblood aristocracy. We may now appreciate the multi-facetedness of his oeuvre, previously unknown or forgotten. The Swedish Zorn and Spaniard Sorolla still await a fuller re-evaluation. I searched of Amazon.com and found no recent books on Zorn; there appear to be two recent texts on Sorolla, but as of October, 2007, they are “currently unavailable.”
8 Peter Plagens, Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast, 1945 – 1970 (Berkeley: UC Press, 1999, re-issue edition with a new Introduction), p. 8.
9 In my opinion, this period bridging the 19th and 20th centuries is one of the most fecund periods of modern art history, and still insufficiently plumbed for its depths – especially the art of Eastern Europe