“I am using myself as my muse”: interview with feminist surrealist, Penny Slinger
Self-identifying woman surrealist Penny Slinger took on the avant-garde scene of second wave feminism by storm. A slick photomonteur and master of 3D, painting and film, to name a few, when Penny popped up in the comments of our Instagram post, I couldn’t quite believe our luck. She’d been following us for awhile actually, and keenly liking most content, but it didn’t click that this user was the Penny Slinger. When she wrote on Molly’s post: “Penrose was my patron!”, I realised she was the real deal. This is why I like Instagram.
Feeling brazen, I leapt at the opportunity to talk to her. Penny is an artist I’ve ogled over for years. For one, six of her mythical, counter-cultural artworks were shown in the 2017 exhibition “The Beguiling Siren is Thy Crest” at the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw. As many readers will know, I am a siren enthusiast; last September, I was due to do a doctoral project on the history of siren mythology in surrealism until the funding opportunities fell through my hands like sand.
The Siren’s Tail, Penny Slinger (1973-1974)
Why would an inspirational and famous feminist surrealist based in California agree to do an interview with an unknown woman based in Scotland running a blog without the money to afford a WordPress domain name? Then, when Penny signed her email “Here in support” – a signature which marks solidarity to a fellow feminist – I felt at complete ease about being in dialogue with her.
Her Wikipedia page may talk about her work and activism in the past tense, but Penny continues to defy artistic and cultural boundaries in the contemporary day. Recently, her work has been included in women-centric exhibitions which strive to rewrite male-coded art history. From “Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s” at The Photographers’ Gallery, to “Dreamers Awake” at White Cube, she has a firm place in contemporary curatorial havens for feminist surrealists. In this interview, Penny gives us an insight into her current activism, beyond the gallery and textbooks on the avant-garde.
What attracted you to surrealism?
Read my Lips, Penny Slinger, photo collage (1973), Roland Penrose Collection
From a young age I had always played with collage, but it was discovering the collage books of Max Ernst while I was a student at Chelsea College of Art that really turned me on to both collage and Surrealism. The way he took old engravings and put them together to create worlds of fantasy and mystery that excited me so much. It turned the world of appearance on its head.
I was never that interested in pure representation, I liked the idea of revealing something of the inner workings of the psyche, the world of dreams and imagination, that called to me. I was interested in the mythic and iconic, and the language of surrealism seemed to embody that most fully in the world of contemporary art.
It showed, by example, that there were no rules one had to follow except the inclinations of the imagination and, by an large, it took pieces of the ‘real world’ to do that, reassembling them at will into a new, alternate reality.
That is what drew me most to Surrealism. I guess if I was content with the mundane world of appearances, I may have picked another style or movement, but I was always marching to the beat of my own drum and, as a non conformist, surrealist language fitted my revolutionary approach to life and art.
How does a surrealist framework support a feminist intent?
Being not content with the world of appearance and surfaces, the surrealist framework was perfect for delving into the subconscious realm and digging up the hidden truths that lie within. As I felt it was high time for woman not to be seen as an object (in the world of art and in life in general), but to show the inner workings of a woman’s mind and psyche was for me crucial and deeply relevant. Surrealism offered the toolkit to probe and uncover, unfetter… So I seized it readily for my own agenda of undressing the female nude to see what lay beneath the skin. I never felt feminism was about getting the same powers as men, but about having the power of the feminine recognised.
Wedding Invitation, Penny Slinger (1973).
Do you identify as a woman surrealist?
I do. But then I also have evolved the surrealist perspective to include the transmissions of Tantra. When I discovered Tantra, I felt to be the evolution of surrealism, as it incorporated the superconscious realms as well as the subconscious. So my style of surrealism is a collage of these approaches. I also have a lot in common with Frida Kahlo who said she was not really a surrealist as such because her work was about herself. We both have used the language of the surrealists to look deeply within. I personally think that is the ultimate surrealist purpose.
How do you reconcile and challenge the patriarchal structures of canonical surrealism with your feminism?
My work is by its very nature the challenge in itself. I decided to be my own muse and to show the nature of the feminine through my own eyes, not through the lens of the masculine gaze. I know that has challenged not only the patriarchal in Surrealism, but in many walks of life. I placed myself deliberately in the erotic arena to try and shift that paradigm. I know it ruffled feathers. Victor Lyons, then running the Playboy Club in London, came to my ‘Opening ‘ exhibit in 1973. As he was leaving, I asked him for his reactions. He simple said, ‘I like my pornography straight’. I was obviously making it very crooked! it made him very uneasy, so I reckon I was doing my job.
I decided to be my own muse
On Her Mouth You Kiss Your Own, Penny Slinger, collage from the series “An Exorcism”, 1970-1977
How do the legacies of women surrealists from the modernist period feed into you work?
I have to be totally frank and say that I was not that impressed by the women surrealists of the period. The fact is that they were overshadowed for me by the power of the male Surrealists, Max Ernst in particular. I have come back to look at their work as I have matured and have appreciated them, but at the time I was not really influenced by them. Their contributions seemed like a rather watered down version of what the men were doing. I also felt that they were not really showing an aspect of Surrealism that was especially tuned to the female consciousness and view in a powerful and focused fashion That left a space for me to come in and use the Surrealist tools for this purpose in a way I had not yet seen.
I have to be totally frank and say that I was not that impressed by the women surrealists of the period.
I remember being impressed by the strong beauty of Lee Miller, but in her role as muse to Man Ray! Later I became familiar with all her photography and gained a deep respect for her work. I knew her personally through my connection to Roland Penrose and spent many weekends at Farley Farm with them both.
So I guess at the time I played into the chauvinism of the art world, but then I have never felt it was enough to be a woman artist to shift the paradigm, one has to create exceptional art.
I cannot help but draw parallels between your tribunal collage An Exorcism and Magritte’s I do not see the woman [hidden] in the forest. Was this intentional, or am I reading into things?
An Exorcism, Penny Slinger (1970-1977).
I do not see the [woman] hidden in the forest, René Magritte (1929). This was not a deliberate allusion on my part, but as I was familiar with the work of Breton and the Surrealists, I am sure it fed my image on the subconscious levels, which, of course, is what Surrealism is all about isn’t it?
What would you say to someone who believes surrealism is a thing of the past?
The actual Surrealist movement is of course a thing of the past. I used to feel sad that I had missed the heyday and was not able to participate in the kind of interactions with fellow Surrealists that I would have so enjoyed. But as time has gone on, I realised I have my own approach which, as I mentioned above, has evolved into my own personal style. If anything has real value, it lasts and evolves. So with Surrealism. I discovered it as I sought throughout the history of art for what resonated. I always look for not only that which is timely, but that which is timeless.
How are you practicing now? How should feminists work to integrate surrealism into the everyday now? How can we ensure its political strength for women’s empowerment today and in the future?
In my current work I am attempting to smash through this barrier of agism, which is in force particularly for the female of the species. It is the next bastion for feminism. Once we are no longer sexual magnets, it is harder to have the allure that younger women have.
I am attempting to smash through this barrier of agism, which is in force particularly for the female of the species. It is the next bastion for feminism.
But this is all caught up with the patriarchal approach and the cannons which see beauty as skin deep, I have never bought into that. My beauty has deepened within as I have aged and I have matured, like a fine wine. So I am currently using myself as my muse, at age 71, and boldly claiming that right. It is not easy, but then I never took the easy path or the road most traveled.
Penny Slinger, from her series An Exorcism (1970-1977)
I have to fight my own perceptions too that want to look in the mirror and see my archetypal image staring back…Age has ravaged that beauty, but my years have also enriched my being and I know I have real value and the wisdom of experience to share. I have always been myself, but now I have more of an overview of how all the threads weave together in this tapestry of my life on earth. My latest series is entitled My Body and I am using myself as the container of my body of experience, in its various facets. I am not ready to be made irrelevant.
Thank you Penny, for your time, support and solidarity.
Final musings – I don’t want to write this interview off as luck. Molly and I work hard at reclaiming the lives and legacies of woman surrealists on a daily basis. This is not some marvellous chance encounter. This is what we do, and we deserve everything that comes to us as a result.
Images sourced from https://pennyslinger.com/. © Penny Slinger.