Shadowy, slick, and enigmatic, Sarah Slappey’s paintings form expanses of depth to entangle ecological and figural shapes within. Under the spell of her compositions, we experience a world built from piercing details. Lush blues, muted pinks, and electric yellows shade swollen hands creeping into dense forests and ethereal skies. Dripping with slime and flashes of searing light, Slappey’s works transport us into an imagined layer where earth and body intersect. Feminine forms punctuate environments that one might visit in a dream, asserting an intimacy of viewpoint and exuding an enchanting power with her pronounced approach to perspective. To look at Slappey’s paintings is to inhabit their curling fingers and lactating breasts — to tremble, touch, and twist into her underworld of sleepless nights.
Following is an excerpt of a conversation between Slappey and Essenhigh, moderated by Alison Karasyk. For the full transcript, please follow this link. This conversation was held in conjunction with the exhibition Sarah Slappey: Night Feeding.
Inka Essenhigh: How conscious are you about a lot of these things that are very creepy? And yet they’re slightly hidden, in a way. Like as if you’re doing a, “this is beautiful!” and I feel a little bit creeped out by it. I go back and forth. I find breastfeeding creepy. I have a kid, so I can say that. I find it kind of creepy. Do you feel like you’re trying to do that with the abstract qualities? Like it’s the abstract qualities that are almost saying it’s okay.
Sarah Slappey: I think they have the potential of doing both, and I’m just sort of at the forefront of figuring that out right now. Leaving empty, blank space as a place where a viewer can go, but also maybe a place where it pushes a viewer out, so that it can kind of do both. It can feel comfortable and familiar, but also what is this space doing when it should be drawn in or painted in or recede, but instead it’s an area of flat paint, where the paint just sits on top of the canvas itself.
IE: So you’re talking about the paint. When you say bring people in and push them out, you’re talking about the surface of the painting, not the content.
Alison Karasyk: In terms of the content though, what pushed you into this terrain? There’s this change within your work — the lactation, the breasts, the female body and maybe most importantly, the viewpoint that you have cultivated. It’s a distinct shift from your previous bodies of work.
SS: So I’d been painting hands for so long. And I think it’s because, I’m still really interested in reducing down. And that’s one of the things that happened, that changed from the work that I was making when we met for the first time, when I was trying to cram everything, a whole story, like a Henry Darger moment, but in one drawing. And it was so hard. It made art unnecessarily hard. Art is difficult enough. And so really it started with these paintings on paper that I wanted to make, for a flat files program, and it unintentionally just became hands. And then I stuck with that motif and I found that the paring down was extremely helpful. So I was working on these hands for a long time, almost as substitutes for the human body. Hands can be more specific than a face, or certainly more specific if you were to paint the legs and torso of a person. There’s something about hands...
IE: They’re gestural.
SS: Right. They move, they behave, they have their own voice, they have emotion, and they can betray a person’s face a lot of times. They can be sexy and sensual. So I was working on that body of work, and I think that’s what Karen and Alison saw. And then the narrative about the breasts and the body came when I was visiting my older sister, who had a newborn and two other kids. And I said, oh, it’ll be no big deal, let me take your night feedings. I can give this baby this bottle. I can totally hack it, this is not that hard. I did not say that. But I did think it wouldn’t be that hard. And it was gruesome and terrible and horrible.
IE: You see human beings as little creatures.
SS: Right and obviously I wasn’t breastfeeding, but I was feeding with my sister’s breastmilk and having this baby who was, for lack of a better word, looking for something to latch onto. And it just made me feel differently about my body than I ever had. And at 3:00 AM, you already sort of feel like you’ve taken a little dose of something. And it created this feeling about my body that I had never discovered. And when I got back, I just felt like there’s something about breasts that’s so suggestive, but not in a sexual way—certainly in a sexual way, but suggestive in an emotional way that hands are also, and I don’t know what it is yet, but I should probably start painting them, and just figure it out.
IE: When did you come up with the highlights? Because I think that that’s also what gives it the strange quality, and fact that it looks like it could be porcelain.
SS: Right. Or like when bodies decay, they bloat, and skin gets a wax on it. So it’s like all of these things, is it supple, or is it breaking down? I don’t know and I’m trying to figure out which painting it happened in first. I think it happened a little bit unintentionally, and that’s just one of those things in the studio, where you make a mark thinking that it will go away, and then you put it down and realize oh, actually I like this. And then it just seemed to fit into this slimy world. A world where the dials were just turned up a little too high in terms of everything. In terms of secretion and color and sensuality and repulsion.
IE: Is everything made up in your mind?
SS: Yeah. I never really had so much of a sketching practice before these paintings, or things would come together more on the canvas, but they’re thin enough now that that got really important. Studies became really important. But I don’t use references for anything. I’ve found that sometimes using references makes things too anatomically correct.
IE: Like it doesn’t mix with this world.
SS: Exactly. There’s really only one joint in each of these fingers, which could not be the case. So it’s easier to work from imagination.
AK: That makes me think about the fact that you’ve done a lot of auto-painting, Inka.
IE: Yes, I do a lot of automatic painting. But that’s actually not the way I’m painting right now. I actually picture what I want in my mind first. And I have a practice of looking for a way of painting where I’m thinking about how I want the painting to feel when it’s done. And that’s the intention. And so I try to hone in on what it’s going to feel like when it’s finished, and then an image comes to me. And so I paint that. And whenever it starts to get away from that question of how does it feel, I go back. So it’s a still life in my mind.
SS: Is it a feeling that you can name, or it’s nebulous?
IE: Sometimes it’s a nebulous thing. It’s different stuff. It can be really abstract. Like right now I’m painting things that are from the future. So it’s not like I’m looking for happy or sad. But I want it to feel foreign and familiar at the same time. But something unfamiliar has happened, and altered in some way.