Women Artists Are Painting Fresh Visions of Sex with a Surrealistic Twist

Ayanna Dozier
Aug 11, 2022 10:28PM

Sarah Slappey, Girl Talk, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Sargent's Daughters.

When describing the main conduits of the human subconscious, psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein determined in her 1912 essay “Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being” that mankind’s drive can be condensed to two points—sex and death. While Spielrein’s analysis might not be a truism for everyone, its accuracy can be seen in 20th- and 21st-century art influenced by the subconscious, specifically in Surrealism.

For Leonora Carrington, for example, representing sex through her subconscious afforded the artist a more poetic and emotive approach to creating paintings that oscillate between a dream and a nightmare. Sex in the work of Carrington and others of her generation, like Frida Kahlo and Dorothea Tanning, was more than just the depiction of coitus, but rather a way to convey desire, pain, and the erotic more broadly.

Dorothea Tanning
En Chair et En Or, 1973
Gutan Art Gallery

As the feminist poet Audre Lorde argued in “Uses of the Erotic” (1978), visual media’s depiction of sex (including painting) has stripped it of its eroticism, and in doing so, flattened sex to be nothing more than a vehicle for male pleasure. Because Surrealism grants artists the ability to lose fidelity with representational likeness, the style has become a space for artists to expand upon visual representations of sex in a way that is more inclusive and attentive to a variety of erotic and emotive expressions.

Surrealist aesthetics have seen a resurgence among contemporary painters, specifically women, which has not gone unnoticed by museums and the art market. Artists like Ambera Wellmann, Madeleine Roger-Lacan, Naudline Pierre, and Sarah Slappey have not only led these changes, but have also reintroduced through their surrealistic paintings more nuanced expressions of sex and the body. The revival of sex and Surrealism exceeds mere arousal, and functions as an opportunity for painters to more fully realize anxieties and experiences pertaining to womanhood.

“Surrealism allows us to literalize concepts that otherwise might go overlooked,” wrote Christine Nyce, a gallery associate and curator at Sargent’s Daughters—which represents Slappey—in an email to Artsy. “For Slappey, this concerns the ways in which gender, even at its most innocuous, exerts a disciplinary power over our bodies.”

Slappey’s paintings often feature nude bodies that engross the canvas in subversive—if not downright cheeky—positions. In Cloud Tangle (2020), the Brooklyn-based artist depicts parts of feminine bodies that are hypervisible, like breasts, stomachs, and buttocks. These forms grotesquely rub against one another and melt into a pastel palette, as white liquid oozes around them. The scene is aggressively sexual as it is violent.

Sarah Slappey, Cloud Tangle, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Sargent’s Daughters.

Slappey, in this work and others, toys with and confronts the acceptable forms of feminine bodies routinely represented across Western art history by allowing them to become, in her words, “too much” for audiences to bear. Through these visceral responses to her work, Slappey forces viewers to work through the erotic to encounter and experience sex’s capacity for discomfort and ailenation—a distinctively less sexy representation than what audiences are used to seeing.

In her most recent 2021 solo exhibition at Sargent’s Daughters, “Self Care,” Slappey depicted bodies bound in a variety of positions and adorned with items that represent girlhood, like ribbons, gingham, and lace. In Blue Gingham (2021), a chorus of bare feet and hands are placed against one another. A first impression might render this scene as part of some type of orgy confection, which it certainly evokes, but closer inspection will unveil the delicate pins piercing flesh to draw blood.

Sarah Slappey, Blue Gingham, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Sargent’s Daughters.

The light illuminating the gathering of touching feet and hands is unnatural and suggests that it is divine in origin, not unlike the annunciation paintings of the classical era. In fact, when producing Blue Gingham and the other works in “Self Care,” Slappey drew inspiration from Christianity’s rich iconography of blood and flesh, as well as her childhood experiences, shaped by Christianity, of performing the perfect girl for others.

Blue Gingham suggests through the violence elicited from these fanciful objects that gendered violence is not only normalized but engrained and filtered through many women’s experience of girlhood. Nyce further argued that the use of sex or the erotic is a way for Slappey to make a clear argument about violence on the body and “reveal that labor and pain are constitutive of what we consider beautiful and desirable,” as Nyce described.

Madeleine Roger-Lacan
Fente, 2022
galerie frank elbaz
Madeleine Roger-Lacan
Etude pour Kinky Mountain Woman, 2022
galerie frank elbaz

For the Paris-born and -based Roger-Lacan, Surrealism’s open-ended nature is what draws painters to represent what is felt within them and cannot be photographed, citing painter Maria Lassnig’s concept of “body awareness” as a source of inspiration for her practice. “[In painting] the carnal body is unstructured in order to express a mental turmoil,” Roger-Lacan wrote to Artsy. “Paintings can take many forms and directly address our imagination to make us see our bodies differently, enrich our visions.”

In one of her latest paintings, Fente (2022), a nude couple lovingly embraces through a pink oval silt. The suggestive opening functions as a metaphor for Roger-Lacan to literally uncover what lies beneath and represent feelings associated with the carnality of sex.

Madeleine Roger-Lacan
The flooded studio, 2021
Galerie EIGEN + ART

Roger-Lacan’s upcoming September solo exhibition “Painting Under My Skirt” at galerie frank elbaz, which co-represents the artist with Galerie Eigen + Art, will feature Fente (2022) alongside other works that are similarly dreamy and fragmented in their construction. Within these dreamscapes are depictions of tenderness through figures gently kissing and embracing. Roger-Lacan’s exploration of sex exceeds titillation as it operates in service of intimacy. “I reveal some fragments of sexual and sentimental intimacy, but I also hide behind symbols and zones of motifs and gestual painting. You are welcomed under the skirt but you are also staying outside,” she wrote, referring to the exhibition title.

Both Nyce and Roger-Lacan emphasize the positive responses they’ve received from institutions to this type of work. Nyce stated specifically that private collectors have embraced Slappey’s paintings largely because they can resonate with her messages and themes. For Roger-Lacan, the reaction has been equally warm, which she attributes to the cultural shift in depicting more frank and equitable conversations on sex and reproductive health in film and television.

Madeleine Roger-Lacan, Se perdre en toi, 2021. Photo by Nicolas Brasseur. Courtesy of the artist and galerie frank elbaz.

Surrealism continues to thrive for its capacity to give a collective vision to women. “In Surrealism made by women, women’s bodies and symbols that have often been used to arouse the viewer are now associated [with] strange and specific personal visions of our womanly experience,” Roger-Lacan added. In this way, Surrealism has opened the doors for women artists to navigate more ambiguous portrayals of sex that also encompass critiques of dominant heterosexual norms that are still relevant today.

By focusing on the “unrepresentable” space of the subconscious, artists can engage with more nuanced portrayals of the body in relation to the systems that govern them. As Nyce expressed, “I think for Slappey, and for women like her, Surrealism offers avenues into the psychological, the internal, and the deliberately occluded. It grants painterly significance to emotions and concerns that have long been considered too feminine or trivial to be taken seriously by the wider art world.”

Ayanna Dozier
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.