Her paintings put female nudes in the “power position.”
MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with artist Nicole Sleeth was in January. “About Face,” a group show at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV), featured two of her paintings, including “Valerie II,” a life-size reclining female nude. It stopped me in my tracks.
Sleeth’s deft, Sargent-esque handling of the paint and crystalline rendering of the gaze of the model—so arresting, alive, confident, and challenging—froze me to the spot. I locked eyes with her for several minutes, she naked and I clothed, in a room churning with people and conversation. I felt humbled by the strength and defiance in Valerie’s expression. Here was her skin and flesh, uncovered, to behold. Yet even in her vulnerability, she was clearly in control, dictating the terms.
That, Sleeth says, is precisely the desired effect. In her series “Gaze,” nude women are the subject, but not the object. Every aspect of these images is about shifting power and agency back to the model, beginning with the vantage point: We, as viewers, are slightly below them, looking up. Sleeth’s unapologetic rendering of the flesh, in all its detail—and the gaze, in its stunning revelation of the spirit—quietly but definitively puts these naked women in charge, even as we stare at them.
Nicole Sleeth (Photograph by Tony Bounsall)
Sleeth herself has a matter-of-fact air; when she took the dais at the AGGV to speak about her work, she was concise and articulate. A calm, steady, business-like gamine in black, she is still willing to reveal herself—judiciously.
Intrigued by her work and impressed by the way she so clearly explains it, I was delighted to see her and her paintings again as part of the Chinatown “Hidden Spaces” artist studio tour in April. We subsequently arranged to meet for an interview.
WHEN I ARRIVE AT HER FISGARD STREET STUDIO, it is populated by several women from the “Gaze” series, and I take them all in. Some I’d seen on the studio tour, some are new to me. Giving each one brief but full consideration seems an imperative. I can’t ignore any of these women—and not just because they are mostly larger-than-life size.
"Jade" 60 x 44 inches, oil on linen
"Marcela" 61 x 32 inches, oil on linen
"Venessa" 65 x 28 inches, oil on linen
I learn a bit about Sleeth’s background, how she came to Vancouver from Ottawa, leaving behind her business career to teach and create art, and subsequently relocating to do the same in Victoria from a spacious studio in Chinatown.
She did not attend “art school,” but studied with Bob Grant at his atelier in Ottawa for eight years. “My work previously was more narrative; I was painting the figure, but putting the focus on the story and the background…I hadn’t given myself permission to focus on the figure itself.”
The watershed moment, she says, came in March 2014 at a workshop at the New York Academy of Art, where she honed her vision under the guidance of Alyssa Monks. “Alyssa is an amazing teacher and painter; it’s hard to find people who are both. Alyssa gave me focus with my work. I just wanted to paint the figure; I didn’t need any justification. It allowed me to give myself permission to do that, and I haven’t really looked back,” says Sleeth.
“The workshop was about painting from a photo reference, and how to do that well, what pitfalls to avoid. I brought some photos of a model I’d worked with in Vancouver, without knowing much about photography.” Sleeth says she takes about 4000 photos of a model for each painting. “I can see little changes, an intake of breath—it’s like a flip book. I find not just a photo to work from, but a point at the arc in their motion…though I’m working from a static photo, I have their motion in my head.”
Sleeth gives a lot of credit to her models, particularly her first “Gaze” subject: “She brought such presence and confidence, and the photo I used had such attitude. It was refreshing for me…to see a painting of a woman who was challenging the viewer. That’s where the underlying theme came through. The model I was painting was staring right back at me; I felt like I was getting to know her…I already did know her, but now it was in a way that was very active, and had a back-and-forth. I was doing work on the painting, and the painting was doing work on me.”
While it’s true that the individual paintings in Sleeth’s “Gaze” series don’t each have an overt “story,” there is a powerful sense of narrative—and dialogue—when viewing these works. “I didn’t want to objectify anybody I was painting,” explains Sleeth. “In our culture, it’s particularly easy to objectify women. I wanted to find a way of painting nude women…that was powerful, and not objectifying.”
By placing herself and her camera on the floor when photographing her subject, Sleeth automatically puts the model in the “power position,” and says, “I realized while I was painting, the eye contact was doing a lot of the work.” That first model telegraphed her personality, and “the way she posed was very confident. Not sexualized, and not hiding. Not taking the viewer’s approval into consideration.”
“Take-me-exactly-as-I-am-or-don’t-take-me” image-making of and by women is happening across disciplines right now, from dance to film to burlesque shows. I want to know if Sleeth considers herself part of this “movement,” and if she’s purposely avoiding depicting models whose bodies conform more readily to culturally-dictated beauty ideals.
“I think there’s a lot of power in seeing people, and women in particular…as they really are, because we’re so often shown such a narrow segment of body types and appearances,” Sleeth explains. “So yes, I hope to be part of that movement in a way, but I also want my work to be…more timeless than that? That happens to be a trend right now, and it’s a great one—and things change, too. I don’t want to be specifically influenced by that.”
Sleeth says she gets a lot of feedback about her work, much of it from women who like what they see. “It’s so amazing when someone comes up to me and says, ’You paint real women, this is what women actually look like.’ They say, ‘I look like that,’ or ‘I used to look like that,’ or ‘my mother looks like that.’ Just seeing women represented in an honest way without seeking approval for it, and without seeking judgement—good or bad—is, I think, a very refreshing thing for people. I know it is for me.”
There’s blowback, too. Sleeth insists “even if people are having a negative reaction, I want to hear about it…I’ve been told I should be ashamed of myself for painting women so explicitly, not covered up…I’ve had people say, ‘I don’t know who would allow themselves to be painted like this.’ [Or ask if] I have a problem with men? [Or suggest] that some models are too heavy, too fat to paint. It always tells me more about the viewer than the painting. I welcome critique of the work, but not critique of the models, because they’ve done a great service to me in posing, and it’s a very brave thing to do.”
Ultimately, Sleeth says, she is simply following her own inspiration and instincts as an artist. Any social commentary about women’s empowerment in her work is, she says, in the eye of the beholder, but her process with her models is often intimate, transformative, and “entirely on their terms; I don’t have any preconceived ideas about how I want somebody to pose…I think that [modeling for this series] can be really empowering for people. It’s their body being seen, but it’s not just their body. I very rarely paint somebody without their face. I think that’s a large part of keeping their individuality present, so their humanity is there, still, and their agency.”
Nicole Sleeth will be exhibiting at both the Sooke Fine Art Show and the Moss Street Paint-in this summer.
Writer, editor, puppeteer and singer Mollie Kaye performs with The Millies.