Susan Sluglett likes a good story, and there is one behind every painting. These works were made in response to a three-month residency at Borough Road Gallery, part of London South Bank University. The paintings of the birds came about after a visit to the building’s top floor studio, a space once occupied by the British modernist David Bomberg. When Sluglett first entered the room, crows were clattering on the glass roof and tearing up wastepaper on the balcony. The poet and lecturer Karlien van den Beukel described the birds as the trace of Bomberg, as they would have been causing similar mayhem in his day too.
This was the start of a prolonged period of investigation for Sluglett into the Borough Group. Dennis Creffield, Cliff Holden, Dorothy Mead, Miles Richmond and Edna Mann were an alliance of young, idealistic artists operating in the post-war period. Lead by their teacher, the troubled and uncompromising Bomberg, the group sought to bring about a renaissance in British painting, championing raw emotion over literal representation. Bomberg had never really recovered from the horrors of the First World War. The vibrancy of his pre-war paintings gave way to frenzied, oleaginous landscapes, as if he was unable to extract himself from the quagmire of Flanders. For Bomberg, painting was about finding the real essence of a work of art. His students were devoted to him; Frank Auerbach described him as “probably the most original, stubborn, radical intelligence that was to be found in art schools.”
The provincialism of the British art establishment in the late 1940s and early 1950s did little to aid Bomberg’s visionary ideas, and the Borough Group faced constant disparagement for their, seemingly, rough and ready approach. Sluglett’s crows, painted in a similarly urgent way, personify that tenacious rebelliousness in Bomberg, while also operating as a prophetic symbol of the group’s untimely demise. Many of the Borough Group struggled for recognition in their lifetimes, including Bomberg, who died virtually destitute in the late 1950s.
Dorothy Mead, although an influence on many artists and being the first female President of The London Group, had faced criticism for her muddy palette - something, she argued was due to white paint being very expensive - according to her sister Val it was a regular request on her Christmas list. During the residency, Sluglett decided to gift Mead a pair of white leather Victorian gloves in a series of paintings called ‘For Dorothy’. There is something incorporeal about these pictures. Set against a white background, the fingers perform odd, floppy contortions, as if they have been possessed. They are almost cartoonish, like Mickey Mouse’s gloves in Disney’s Fantasia and echo the lively animation of Mead’s own paintings.
Sluglett is also an expressive painter. An artist known for her expediency, she paints quickly, the subject matter guiding the emotional intensity of the paint. An upside-down wedding bouquet is rendered in a splatter of oil paint, as if it had been slammed to the ground in a fury of tears and shattered dreams. The detritus of a debauched night out is expressed in wild sloppy brushstrokes, oily dribbles the consistency of sweat and semen running down the canvas. Yet Sluglett’s frenetic execution is underpinned by great technical detail. Having trained as a graphic designer before becoming an artist, Sluglett has an intuitive understanding of composition.
The subject matter of her paintings is invariably a combination of historical research and found, or made objects. In this instance, the tottering stacks of paper cups and cardboard rolls featured in the painting ‘Parliament II’, were the remnants of a cathedral she created out of canteen detritus. The sculpture was made in homage to the Borough Group artist Dennis Creffield, who was commissioned by the Arts Council in 1987 to draw every medieval cathedral in England, resulting in an exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre.
Sluglett’s desire to build something three-dimensional before starting a series of paintings has often puzzled her. As if the construction of the image needs to be felt before it can be depicted. She rarely shows these objects, believing it dilutes the power of the final paintings, yet they are integral to her practice. In many ways she could be described as an old-fashioned still life painter, and certainly the recent painting ‘Decoy’ depicting a dropped bouquet was a personal challenge to, in her words ‘attempt a bunch of flowers’. There will always be great inventiveness in Sluglett’s paintings, as will be seen in her forthcoming show at New Greenham Arts in 2016. Yet at the heart is the need to understand the subjects she paints right down to their DNA.
- Jessica Lack © 2015
The wedding cake has imploded into a sickening morass of icing and meringue, at the centre of which is a virulent red cherry. No longer on top, it sits like a ticking time bomb, waiting for the moment when the tension becomes unbearable. Merrily we go to Hell II, the title of this glutinous mess, is inspired by a 1932 film about alcoholism and modern marriage, or as the heroine describes it ‘single lives, twin beds and triple bromides in the morning’. It forms one of five canvases by Susan Sluglett about a royal wedding. In one picture the bride is depicted as a Disney princess in the 1950s mode, part Jean Harlow part Cinderella with pneumatic breasts to match, her groom looks like Prince Charles. The other canvases form a series called Stag, Prague at Dawn and Moonshine depicting the aftermath of a raucous night out. Sticking out of the top of a Georgian column, wrapped in black and yellow hazard tape is a large, swollen foot. It is not a coincidence that its bulbous toes are reminiscent of The Gout, an etching by the eighteenth-century satirist James Gillray on the disease of Kings. Sluglett’s paintings are, on the one level, lampooning marriage and the celebrity fairytale weddings of Hello! Magazine, yet they also reflect the artist’s fascination with theatre and artifice. Unsurprisingly she credits Paul McCarthy, the LA artist known for his grotesque performances featuring animatronics and tomato ketchup, as an influence, and certainly the paintings embody that paradox, so prevalent in McCarthy’s work, between the sanitised façade of Disneyland and the repressive ideologies it embraces.
Sluglett grew up on Mickey Mouse and studied graphic design before she decided to pursue Fine Art, and this training is indicative of her practice. Her seemingly frenetic execution is underpinned by slick, tightly controlled compositions, reflecting in paint the same conflicting emotions of the subject matter. She works quickly on several paintings at the same time and uses oil paint because it remains wet for longer, allowing her the freedom to change direction. Sluglett’s ideas tend to come from found objects and historical research. For this series she was inspired by a large gold bauble, a broken bridal decoration for a wedding cake and the history of the ‘stag night’ from the fifteenth century to present day Prague, where cheap alcohol and lax gun laws make for a raucous combination. The resulting paintings are a heady mix of shiny pretence and shattered dreams.
- Jessica Lack © 2013