The New Nudes

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R.U. Art Gallery celebrates Sylvia Sleigh Collection, Rowan’s first permanent collection.

For centuries, art was a man’s world  -- male artists painted and sculpted nude female subjects, largely for male viewers and patrons.

In the Sylvia Sleigh Collection, Rowan University’s first permanent collection, the work of dozens of women artists turns that model around. The collection of nearly 100 pieces features some nudes – both male and female – but does not objectify women in the way that male artists historically did.

Sleigh, a pioneering feminist and well-known painter of portraits and male nudes, accumulated the paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and photographs by purchase and exchange. Her interest in the art of accomplished women allowed her to assemble a significant and varied group of works that she offered to donate to the Gallery shortly before her death last year.

“What concerned Sleigh was that women had traditionally been painted as objects and she sought to change that,” said Andrew Hottle, an associate professor of Art History in Rowan’s College of Fine & Performing Arts.

Dr. Hottle said as far back as ancient Greece and Rome artists objectified the female form, largely for the pleasure of men who patronized the arts. It was art, Dr. Hottle said, but softly pornographic, objectifying women without generally identifying them except, often, as the Greek goddess they were posing to be.

He said Sleigh was among a group of prominent women painters, sculptors and photographers of the 1960s and 70s who sought to change the artistic treatment of both women and men.

Mary Salvante, curator and director of the Rowan University Art Gallery, said the works of Sleigh and other women in the collection like Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois and Sharon Wybrants represent not just a change in the attitudes of artists but American society in general as both the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements came into their own.

“The motivation for painting the nude has changed,” Salvante said. “Today it’s less about sexualizing the nude and more about putting it in a narrative context.”

“Groundbreaking: The Women of the Sylvia Sleigh Collection” will be on display in the Gallery in Westby Hall August 29 through October 1. Also on display will be selections from the “Sister Chapel,” a historic collection of 11 floor-to-ceiling works from various artists including Sleigh and Neel that was first assembled in 1978. Pieces from that collection include Neel’s depiction of Bella Abzug, a fiery New York Congresswoman, Sleigh’s “Lilith,” and Wybrants’ “Self-Portrait as Superwoman.”

Dr. Hottle, who worked to acquire the Sleigh collection, is writing a book about the Sister Chapel installation and hopes to bring that collection in full to the Gallery as well.

In the short term, he said, the Sleigh collection presents a wide variety of artwork from the 1960s and 70s, a glimpse into the mindset of accomplished female artists during a tumultuous time. Over time, he said, the collection will raise Rowan’s profile as a university that attracts both serious art and serious artists.

“These works are historically important, visually interesting and unique,” Dr. Hottle said. “As a resource it is scholarly, educational and inspiring.”

Added Salvante: “The collection helps fulfill our mission as an important cultural destination for southern N.J. You won’t see this collection in New York, Philadelphia, or Washington, D.C., just Glassboro.”

The Rowan University Art Gallery is on the lower level of Westby Hall on the north side of Route 322. The Gallery, which exhibits only professional-caliber work, recently received a Citation of Excellence by the State of New Jersey’s Council on the Arts for a planned exhibition by the artist Willie Cole next spring.

Rowan student artists utilize the Gallery for instruction and inspiration but show their work in a Westby student gallery and at the High Street Gallery downtown.

A reception for the Sleigh exhibition will be held Tuesday, September 6 from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. Admission to the exhibit and reception is free and open to the public. Standard Gallery hours are Monday – Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (until 7 p.m. on Wednesdays); and Saturday from 12 to 5 p.m. For more information, call 856-256-4521 or visit www.rowan.edu/fpa/artgallery.

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