Layers of emotion: Artist Anne Slaughter builds up to self-discovery

Anne Slaughter’s “At the Edge of the Night” depicts the artist’s escape from occupied France during World War II. Photo courtesy of the artist. Anne Slaughter’s “At the Edge of the Night” depicts the artist’s escape from occupied France during World War II. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Anne Slaughter has been a familiar presence on the Charlottesville art scene for many years, her oeuvre being most notable for its heavily worked surfaces. Slaughter spends enormous effort on these, building them up with layers of pigment, “Many, many layers,” she emphasized. She’s constantly tinkering, applying paint and then sanding it down, reapplying paint and sanding it again to achieve her characteristic surface abrasions, pittings, and variations of hue. The process can take several months. Sometimes she adds collage elements, all the while carefully calibrating color and texture until she’s satisfied. “Ultimately,” she said. “the work has to have a balance, a harmony. It has to hold together.”

Clearly, Slaughter’s after an effect that is visually interesting, but she also wants to evoke something metaphorical. Her works’ excavated and timeworn appearance is intended to express “the passage of time on the layers of feelings and emotions in our lives,” she said.

The work on view in “Connections” at Les Yeux du Monde (through November 16) represents a significant departure for the largely self-taught Slaughter—aside from some early work, it is the first time she has included the figure. She began using the human form following a trip to Pompeii, but even Slaughter is unsure exactly where it came from. “At this stage in my life, I needed to address strong emotions that kept resurfacing as ripples deep in an ocean become a continuous, powerful wave,” she said. “The great loss of a childhood friend, a soulmate, was at its edge. But also surging and ebbing were the threads that weave the fabric of human friendship, joys, and play, but also loneliness, pain, and more and more, irretrievable losses.”

Slaughter’s figures are semi-abstract. Seen from behind, their posture alone is meant to convey emotion. Some, with hunched shoulders, seem weighed down with trouble. Others, in pairs, incline toward each other in an attitude suggesting love. It is a subtle yet powerful approach, with the figures’ anonymity ensuring universal identification. In “Amicizia” we see a work inspired perhaps by Slaughter’s deep friendship, but it also has significance for us all.

One figure does seem to evoke a particular person. Family members have identified Slaughter’s mother in the graceful form of “She Alone.” Even with the spare lines with which she is drawn, one can discern the stylishness of her dress. The elegance of Slaughter’s white line is matched by the luscious, inky background. On the wall next to it, a mother and child are placed against a field of carefully modulated, almost mineral-like indigo in “At the Edge of the Night.” These two nocturnal scenes reference the traumatic night in 1942 when Slaughter, then age 7, escaped on foot from occupied France into free France with her mother and brother. One can hardly imagine such an event at such an age and it explains a lot about Slaughter’s formal approach and focus.

Slaughter, who was born in Brussels, first came to the states on an American Field Service Scholarship in 1952, spending the year in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She moved permanently in 1957 after her marriage to Charlottesville native Edward Slaughter.

In “The Memories Within,” a wall of writing is discernable behind the figure alluding to “the fading ink of letters of many years.” Slaughter has long used fragments of text in her work. It’s never meant to be comprehensible, but rather an intentional palimpsest suggesting layers of meaning that are at once evocative and tantalizingly elusive. 

My favorite work in the show, “Coming and Going,” struck just the right balance between color, texture, and subject matter. A small work, it seems to depict a line of people moving (my mind immediately went to refugees) from left to right across the picture plane. I love how they are rendered in the most sketchy of lines that succinctly suggest shapes, character, and movement. Then there are bands of color—an apricot aura hovering over the people with vibrant cadmium red flowing above, and below, a flat gray wave underscoring the people that’s just the right yin to the red’s yang. It’s a complex, yet simple composition with a uniformity of tension that carries across the entire picture plane.

Slaughter’s work has always had a particular gravitas, as one might expect from someone who experienced war and destruction at an early age. Slaughter says she loves the appearance of old walls and admits that the sight of all the destroyed houses on her return to Belgium after the war had a powerful affect on her for years. But this work, referencing “the transiency of our passage in the world” has a distinctive elegiac quality that is particularly raw and moving. In its distressed layers, we see writ large “the traces we make and those we leave and how time and the elements transform them.”

“Connections” will be on display at Les Yeux du Monde through November 16.

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