Sarah Slappey - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle Hong Kong Thursday, December 1, 2022 | Phillips

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  • “I think being in a human body is to be in a constant state of vulnerability. The action in my paintings underscores this. I like to play with different kinds of touching that straddle the line between comfort and discomfort. Squeezing, grabbing, poking, prodding. They are actions that could feel menacing or delightful, depending on the context. And in my paintings you never really know what this context is, so they flip-flop between dangerous and silly – and to me, that’s vulnerability.”
    — Sarah Slappey

    South Carolina-born but Brooklyn-based, Sarah Slappey’s work is defined by her surrealist interpretations of femininity in the 21st Century. Luscious and unnerving, her compositions are filled with nameless bodies whose contorted limbs interlink with controlled abandon, and bejeweled with tropes of girlhood (bows, jewels) as well as more lewd objects like drugs and piercings. Slappey’s unforgiving and singular practice has firmly placed her at the forefront of the next crop of rising female figurative artists, straddling the line between comfort and discomfort, the seductive and the grotesque.



    Sinister Objects of Restraint


    Here, twisting ribbons of black beads lactate from the impossible physiology of the anonymous Venus. Carnal topography is rendered in portly blushes of pink, rose and coral that serve both to heighten feminality and flirt with a menacing sexuality, one that pervades through the composition despite its innocent palette and that the artist categorises as ‘a kind of quiet violence’i. The salacious sexuality that lies at the heart of the work shifts interest from the conceptual to the physical, making us question our own bodies and their relationship with our subconscious. The searching hands are poised in a Renaissance delicacy bearing religion connotations to Virgin Mary’s chironomia, while their corpulence reminds us of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, albeit with a more sinister kind of Mannerism. Nonetheless, the soft contours of flesh that Slappey achieves is a product of both her own industry (she often devotes 60-hour weeks to her studio) and her use of a weathered palette knife that permits large quantities of pigment to melt under her consummate direction.



    Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1485-86
    Uffizi Gallery, Florence
    Image: Scala, Florence - courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Culturali e del Turismo


    In another work to be offered in this season’s sales, The Swimmer by Louis Bonnet (Lot 31), we see a further continuation of this toying with the signifiers of sexuality and gender, forming a natural diptych of conference. Bonnet presents an absurdist depiction of a young man showering with his clothes on, his exaggerated features holding patent phallic imagery – an uneasy balance between physiological and psychological tension that makes canvas and pigment burst at the seams.



    Left: The Present Lot

    Right: Lot 31, Louise Bonnet, The Swimmer, 2016
    Phillips Hong Kong Evening Sale, 1 December 2022
    Estimate: HKD400,000-600,00


    Interpretations are not definitive or final as Slappey leaves the door open for personal subjectivity; ‘I know that I can't control other people's read of my work. I would be chasing that forever’, she explains, ‘but it made me think that, as an artist who makes representational images, my work is sort of like a stew, where I'm always adding in ingredients to make the final product’ii. However, there is a target in sight for her works: the male gaze. For all the subjugation of the female body that hangs onto art history (and art to this day) like a cancer, Slappey’s presentation of the female figure with all its contours, imperfections and perfections forces the debate to the opposite sex, and demands an answer; ‘I want men to feel the humaneness of being in a body and the constraints of being in a body. Also the body and culture and pinching and pulling and piercing because that’s all universal. We all have skin, muscle, and tissue, and fat’iii.



    In Interview


    In 2019, Sarah Slappey spoke to Julia Mont from twocoatsofpaint on her newer series of smaller works that began to place an emphasis on the tangling of limbs and dripping breasts:


    Julia Monte: This approach is new for you.


    Sarah Slappey: Definitely since within the past year, it sort of grew from small paintings on paper of hands, because I wanted to apply for a flat file program and I needed paintings on paper. Then I started making these paintings; I wanted to make some small, quick works. Instead of trying to fit the whole figure into a small space, I thought, well what if I keep the figure essentially lifesize, but just use the hands as a substitute for the entire body? I kept going with because I realized that to say what I want to say, I didn’t need the whole body. It might actually be a distraction.


    JM: I think that’s a smart move. This is something I think about as well, the scale within a drawing or sculpture and how you can manipulate that. So prior to this work you were painting full figures.


    SS: Yes, some full figures, some pieces of bodies, but they were all nearly life size. In hindsight I realize I was paying more attention to the environments than what the figures were doing in them. Now it’s much more important to have the figure in the environment, both acting and reacting with each other.




    JM: Limbs was definitely stuck in my head, describing both plant and body. The ones that referenced that of a human were very slippery or glossy and shiny –


    SS: slimey, yes.


    JM: There is a dichotomy between the two. Not that the plants don’t always read the same way, but they seem to have more evident brush strokes, while the marks in the hands or breasts and nipples are subdued, They are more realized and stick out in a different way.


    SS: Well, the foliage backgrounds, to me, feel much more abstract because they are quick. It is like I am finding the spaces as I go along, usually. Whereas the limbs and the breasts are really, like you said, highly rendered and kind of shiny and slimy. I like the paradox between the two as this kind of puffy body that lives in a world that is fast and sketchy, at times. And then, at other times, maybe it is just a series of abstracted shapes that feel Matisse-y. If it were all done in one style or the other that space between the two types of representation would be lost.




    JM: Some worlds within the paintings are almost desolate feeling. They do feel full of life, and I think there is an idea of nurturing, as well. Of course, nature is evident, but the other side of that is nurture; especially with the dripping breasts that present as if they were watering their environment. There is a directness. Perhaps the misshapen figures don’t represent something dead, but something not living.


    SS: There is definitely something sinister. Any time an artist takes apart a body in a painting, there is going to be a sense of disturbance. Which I like because they are all so lush and sexual, but each of these figures, in not connecting to a torso or a head, feel threatening to a viewer. But, again, I am all about the paradox, so I like to undermine that threat. Maybe it was a living person and it is not any more. That sort of dead feeling, like you said, presents something gentle and caressing, but is it also pulling something apart. Or holding it together? The painting with the hand reaching for a butterfly, which seems -- I am even surprised that I put a butterfly in a painting because it is so twee and yet, I put it in there because it seems sweet. Also I always want to touch butterflies and you’re not supposed to because you will damage their wings. So, essentially, by touching their wings you are murdering them. Impulse control, or lack thereof, and the feeling that things are teetering on not being ok is something that I am interested in. But I love what you just said about the dripping breasts nourishing the environment. I feel like the moment you said that I got four paintings in my brain.


    Read the full interview here.



    Collector’s Digest


    Sarah Slappey lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Her paintings examine the paradoxes of aesthetic pleasure and discomfort through the human form. She received her MFA from Hunter College in 2016 and BA from Wake Forest University in 2006. She is represented by Sargent’s Daughters, New York.


    Slappey has had solo exhibitions at Maria Bernheim Gallery (Zurich) and Sargent’s Daughters (New York). Her work has been included in group exhibitions at the Schlossmuseum, Linz; Carl Kostyal Gallery, London; Deanna Evans Projects, New York; König Galerie, Berlin; Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York; and the Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain (MAMCO), Geneva.


    In 2015, Slappey was awarded at Kossak Painting Grant and a Hunter MFA award for Outstanding Achievement. Her work as appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, Flash Art, Two Coats of Paint, ArtSpace, ArtMaze Magazine, Social Life, Long Island Pulse, and Hamptons Art Hub.


    Slappey’s work is held in the permanent collections of Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.; Institute of Contemporary Art Miami, Miami; Musée D’Art Moderne et Contemporain, Geneva; Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus; Orange County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Vanhaerents Art Collection, Brussels; Zabludowicz Collection, London.



    i Katie White, ‘How Does Rising Artist Sarah Slappey Stay Mellow While Painting Scenes of ‘Quiet Violence’? A Soothing Studio Soundtrack’, Artnet News, 21 September 2021, online

    ii Sarah Slappey, quoted in Sasha Bogojev, ‘Sarah Slappey: The Well of Fucked-Upness’, Juxtapoz, online

    iii ibid.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Maria Bernheim, Zürich
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Berlin, König Galerie, The Artist is Online: Painting and Sculpture in the Postdigital Age, 18 March - 18 April 2021



Black Pearls II

signed and dated 'S.Slappey 2020' on the reverse
oil on canvas
140 x 124.5 cm. (55 1/8 x 49 in.)
Painted in 2020.

Full Cataloguing

HK$300,000 - 500,000 

Sold for HK$1,008,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle

Hong Kong Auction 1 December 2022