In the early 1990s, advertising mogul and London gallery owner Charles Saatchi began to sponsor members of a loosely-knit group of recently-graduated art school brats who would become known at the YBAs – Young British Artists. In 1997, Sensation, a group YBA show of work from the Saatchi collection was mounted at the Royal Academy of Art, London, and two years later, after a stop in Berlin, a version of the show was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Noted art expert Rudy “Lapdog” Guiliani, then mayor of New York City, made deriding comments filled with righteous indignation regarding the show, specifically Chris Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary, and attempted to evict the museum from its space and withdraw its funding. In addition to the expected art world ink, the story was picked up by the general press, few of whose members seemed to have actually seen even a photo of the piece in question, as it was often described as being “smeared” or “splattered” with elephant dung, which was not the case. It’s always fun to see professional wackjobs frothing at the mouth about the latest artwork that’s going to bring about the downfall of Western civilization; however, political baiting aside, most of the work in Sensation was not really up my snicket.
I thought some of the YBAs – e.g. the aforementioned Ofili, whose work I considered fairly innocuous; Jake & Dinos Chapman – were not particularly interesting at all, and found others – e.g. Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread – to be intriguing conceptually, but not so much in the formal sense.1 The sole member of the group whose work I found really engaging was Jenny Saville.2
Saville was only twenty-three years old and already an accomplished painter when she first showed her photographically-based outsize canvases of outsize female nudes. Her work existed in the face of all the “male gaze”3 figurative paintings of art history, as well as the trendy heroin chic fashion photography of the day. Saville’s feminist approach often leads critics to give the work what I feel is an overly-conceptual reading. First and foremost, she is a painter, one whose lush depictions of human flesh indicate she is just as obsessed with the subject as was Francis Bacon or Rembrandt, both painters whose work I’m sure she has studied extensively.
One of my favorites of her early work, Propped, depicts a large woman4 sitting atop a stool. The seven-foot-tall canvas, the low angle perspective, and the dramatically foreshortened legs accentuate her size as she looks down on the viewer. Feminist writer Luce Irigaray’s words “If we continue to speak in this sameness – speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other…”5 are scored into the picture plane in mirror image writing, as if they are for the figure in the piece, not the audience. It is an extraordinarily sophisticated work for such a young artist to have executed, and was what convinced Saatchi to offer to become Saville’s patron and commission her to spend two years working on pieces to be shown at his gallery.
Since the ’90s, Saville has continued to evolve as a painter. Her color palette is now more varied and vivid; her paint handling more vigorous – the brushwork, like Bacon’s or Frank Auerbach’s, often seems to bear no relation to the form it represents, although unlike those artists, she maintains a credible human anatomical structure. She also employs completely abstract de Kooningesque passages and often draws on canvas with charcoal and pastel, giving the paintings a more active and layered surface. She continues to focus on the human form, and has expanded her subject matter to include pregnant women, babies, children, and transgender men and women.
For decades, probably since the advent of photography, there has been talk of “the death of painting.” It hasn’t happened yet, and it’s not going to happen on Jenny Saville’s watch.
1 To be fair, especially to Whiteread, I have seen work by most of the YBAs only in reproduction.
2 Those of you who were hip kids in the 1990s will recognize Saville’s work from the cover of the Manic Street Preachers album The Holy Bible; Epic Records (1994).
3 In feminist theory, the “male gaze” refers to the depiction of women as sexual objects for the benefit of a straight male audience. I suppose some of my work could be seen through this lens, although I think the artistic concerns have always outweighed any objectification, actual or perceived.
4 The figure has Saville’s face, although I do not know if she considers Propped to be a self-portrait.
5 “When Our Lips Speak Together” from Signs; University of Chicago Press (1980).