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FILM REVIEW: Penny Slinger – Out of the Shadows

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Director: Richard Kovitch

A film with enough anarchic spirit to rival its subject, Penny Slinger – Out of the Shadows is the story of a British artist whose work, after forty years, is taking its rightful place in art history.

Directed by Richard Kovitch, the film introduces Slinger through a series of interviews, intercut with footage of her films, photo collages and assemblage. Studying at Chelsea Art School in the late 1960’s, Slinger became interested in experimental cinema. She used her own body to make art that comments on persona, image and feminism.

Kovitch’s film loads up the images – they are fired at us in quick succession. The work layers ideas on the performative aspect of gender. The images are sexually frank, with Slinger exploring female subjugation. She references Victorian iconography – the high watermark of patriarchy – and interplays them with BDSM images and feminist commentary. Using abandoned manor houses as the location for her films (in particular Lilford Hall), Slinger’s vision is gothic, macabre and sexually charged. Kovitch is keen for us to see as much of the art as possible – the driving force of the documentary is to persuade us of the strength of Slinger’s voice.

Slinger herself makes an excellent interview subject: sitting with her former collaborator Jane Arden, she draws a vivid picture of life as an art student in the 60’s and 70’s. A time of opportunity and change, Slinger’s focus shifts from the impediments of gender, and into psychological trauma. Slinger’s 1977 masterpiece – The Exorcism – is a photo-collage looking at how female sexuality can diversify away from societal norms. Kovitch captures the freshness of Slinger’s ideas without bias: these are concerns we are still dealing with today.

The film discusses the impact of Slinger’s art during her most prolific period. Creating pornographic images that challenged the London art scene, Slinger’s reputation was that of an artist working very much in the counter-culture. Slinger – young, talented and photogenic – had all the potential to become the Next Big Thing. But becoming increasingly disillusioned with the business of art, she exited the industry. The impact of her work, and its potential to influence, began to fade.

A voice from the past, as recognisable as our own, the documentary fulfils its brief in presenting Slinger as an essential component of feminist / art history. With an emphasis on gender fluidity, Slinger’s body of work speaks to a generation for whom this way of being is not only understood, but actively embraced.

The popularity of the recent National Gallery exhibition of Artemisia Gentileschi indicates that the appetite for discovering (or re-discovering) female artists is very much of the moment. Kovitch’s film reframes Slinger against this backdrop – in the last third of the film, Slinger’s art enters a world that is finally ready for her.

Out of the Shadows is a fascinating look at how art can struggle to find its audience. The 2017 documentary becomes its own case in point, as the way we view Slinger’s art has changed again. Using herself as a muse, Slinger’s subject is white, able-bodied and thin: any discussions of race, body positivity and accessibility are noticeably missing. Slinger’s art may be an exploration of the female psyche, but it already works from a point of privilege. It does not undo her achievement – Out of the Shadows is utterly convincing in its call for Slinger’s artwork to enjoy its time in the spotlight. Watching three years later, there is an additional argument to be made. Perhaps Slinger’s real legacy is not what has already been said, but that we are aware of how much distance there is left to cover.

Available online: Vimeo / Amazon Prime / YouTube / iTunes / Google Play

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The Reviews Hub London is under the editorship of John Roberts.The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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