On my way to Modern Art Oxford I passed several people I didn’t know before bumping into my friend Nick. “Hey Nick,” I said, “would you like to come to see the Jenny Saville exhibition on at Modern Art Oxford?” He replied “I was just going to go to visit Walter Pater’s grave,” in his fay way, ”but yes, fine.”
The night before I had read a review of a previous Jenny Saville exhibition in New York, where the reviewer had commented on Saville’s “particularly English obsession with flesh” but tempered by “a particularly American attention to paint”, and Saville’s tendency to cloak both “in a familiar academicism that makes them, despite all intentions, much less disturbing.” This firestorm of judgements was already swirling around my head by the time I met Nick (an American quite English) on the way to see if they were true.
It seems to be a common accusation of more out-and-out figurative work post 1950’s that the person/subject exists as a pretext for making a painting. There is the flesh, and there is the paint, but the flesh is just a thing to be academic with. This is not to say that this is a post 1950’s problem, but rather formalism finding new targets in old pictures: David Sylvester rounding on Walter Sickert for example, whose paintings ‘do too many things. They are highly visual, with a camera’s indifferent reflection of fortuitous effects of light and a marvellous eye for the totally unexpected shapes which crop up in nature’, as well as being ‘highly aesthetic, with their impeccable design and harmonisation of tone and colour’ and ‘highly psychological, with a novelist’s eye for specific human tensions’, but ‘the point is that Sickert only combined them by having them exist side by side. They don’t fuse as the disparate elements in the work of great artists fuse so that each is inconceivable without the others.’
I am quoting Sylvester at length partly because he is brilliant and partly because it seems that these elements seem absolutely the problems that Saville needs and tries to solve. It seems to me there is also a further level of complexity in this with the advent of Lucien Freud (and to a lesser extent Francis Bacon), both acknowledged influences on Saville, who are valued precisely because of this flesh-as-pretext: Freud’s disinterest in his models’ character is famous and/for bordering on psychopathic but, as with Damian Hirst, it is lauded because it is something like “the sterile, self-interested art of our self-interested times.” Why not make a portrait that is wholly surgically exploratory, carry the English obsession with flesh through to its logical conclusion (rather than an Italian logical conclusion…), in an age where Facebook provides millions of cold images for us to judge only with reference to ourselves?
So I met my friend Nick on his way to see the grave of the chief inspirer of the “Fleshy School” of English pre-Raphaelites and in some cosmic way that was nice, because it is good to have flesh in mind when you go to see the Jenny Saville show, as well as the fact that figuration and nudes are now no longer for titillation muddled with the Pure Religion of Art, but are now muddled also with a self-conscious voyeurism and perversion. We can have our Pater-like aesthetic escape into the realm of Art, but we are, perhaps, thanks to John Berger amongst others, one of the first generations to be conscious of doing that, rather than just describing its necessity.
Modern Art Oxford has been re-jigged for this show. The previous café/lounge style area has been cleared in order to get more hanging space, and now the show runs up one set of stairs, along the first floor, and back down a set of stairs on the other side. You now both start and end in the gift shop, which is a shrewd curatorial as well as commercial move. The order is strictly chronological, chopped into what seem like “periods” by the gallery layout. But the gallery has been made into a circuit, so as you look for a way to leave the gift shop (sorry Modern Art Oxford) you have a 50/50 chance of working backwards through Saville’s oeuvre or forwards. Which is nice, as both are enlightening in different ways. Nick and I went backwards, but now we’ll go forwards (and I’m not saying which direction is which from the gift shop).
The first of the four rooms contains the 1990s massive canvases of red-pink obese nudes that really put her on the map and reminded people of Titian and Rubens. These pictures remain interesting for their surprising economy in amount of paint and control of tone, but also because they make murals and cathedrals of flesh. They focus on a kind of natural abstraction coming from both intense obesity itself and the larger-than-life-size scale, and you have to stand very far back to see the whole form rather than only segments small enough for your eye. Importantly, however, it feels as though here we are looking through an eyeglass at detail, rather than down a microscope at a specimen. This difference is purely connotative: it doesn’t feel like we are coldly examining these nudes- they use a warm pink, they are tactile, rather than some of Freud’s work which encourages you to see the subject as though they are sitting inside a dry fish tank, or behind soundproof bulletproof glass, or wedged in a microscope slide. (Incidentally, Saville’s paintings of nudes pressed against glass I do not see as Freud-style either. Perhaps there are two types of glass, but anyway this series of pictures is not in the exhibition.) It is the pink/redness, I think, slightly tinted white and impressionist, that makes these works seem engaged and empathetic by colour and composition.
This is not, to me, the eye of a camera. “Fulcrum” (1997-1999) for example, an early standout, in which three obese lying nudes clamber and blur across and into each other (on a 16 foot wide canvas) is emphatically not a photograph, and occasionally hides being from one. It hides that cold sharpness by softening certain outlines, showing painterly control of tone and marks, and above all shifting the light and shadow, switching between a blue and a red tint in the colours. This has the effect of shading certain areas of the picture cold like an operating table, some warm as flesh. Crucially; in the tone is the thought, in the thought is the means, in the means is the tone, whilst Saville is at her most English in these pictures: Bacon, Freud (with more milk of human kindness in her looking), to which I would also add later Coldstream.
The second room shows her becoming more American influenced, experimenting with freer mark making and bolder Abstract Expressionist sweeps, rather than the stricter, more intricate tonal painting of the 90s. “Study for Suspension” (2000-2001) is not a study in the strictest sense, but a test-pad for the interaction of swift marks and colour. It must to be around this time that Saville stopped using a stepladder to reach tall works propped upright, and switched to a paintbrush on the end of a broom handle to apply paint to the canvas lying flat on the floor in bolder strokes.
And next to these strokes is the seed of another idea in “Fig II.23” (1997): a more textured, raw canvas (in this case a bright rent-flesh red), but with uncannily glassy staring eyes. Saville has always been considered a feminist artist and rightly so- the obese nude pasted on the wall as a kind of challenge to Rubens’ voluptuousness-, but as time goes on Saville makes her subjects look the viewer straight in the eye. In paintings like “Ruben’s Flap” (1998-1999) or “Fulcrum” there is still slight passivity in the subject’s averted eyes, but “Fig II.23”, with the name of a specific oddity as pictured in a medical textbook, looks straight back. My friend Nick said he didn’t like this picture. It is immensely unsettling to be caught looking and judging, to be made conscious of your indiscretions, like being caught people-watching and making examinations. So I like it basically because Nick didn’t.
Modern Art Oxford then moves to the 2000s and lays heavy weight on Saville’s use of a blue tint that tends to cast that surgical light I was hinting at over her model. This room seems to represent a tricky crossover of masters. There is “Passage” (2004-2005), a legs splayed Italian transvestite presented to us in the same colours as the Gherkin Tower in London- those kind of frank, “business”, technological tones- and I think here is where Saville comes too close to a kind of tourism. There is a loss of warmth for the subject in a lot of the paintings in this room: a subject becomes a pretext for a painting, or more accurately in this case a painting becomes a pretext for a subject. American “Hard-Boiled” detective writers used to criticise Agatha Christie for having someone murdered only to make a puzzle. In a similar way, even though Saville’s subject has become more complex “to theorize”, the resulting emotional aspect of the picture is simplified. There is a loss of softness and intricacy in these pictures, where the new more Pollock-like technique has come slightly out of join with the rest, and we are left with what looks like an overpainted photo. For all “Passage”’s incredibleness I don’t believe her, whereas the more-incredible “Fulcrum” had me as I walked through the door.
But her recent diptych “Red Stare Head I-II” (2007-11) is a promising indication that Saville is once again becoming master of all she knows. She has her broom handle by the hand again. “Red Stare Head I” is a girl looking slightly down and away, with some kind of skin problem on the near side of her face. “Red Stare Head II” is an almost identical image, but flipped so she looks the other way. The eye is central in the composition of both. The near eye looks away yet stares- serenely aware-, but the face seems to fall and sweep and skid off the eye, and up from the lips, making a brilliant painterly surface to contrast with the traditional two areas in which characters are made (or not made) in classical portraiture: the eyes and the corners of mouth. (John Singer Sargent once said a portrait was “something wrong with the mouth”). We have a character here that a camera could not make, even though it has obviously been instrumental in first capturing the image that’s so easily flipped. We are in the old “gawping vs. empathy” quagmire in a new way; in a way that is arguably more of Saville’s own.
The final room shows work from this decade, mainly sketches riffing on classical and old themes: Pietàs and “Venus of Urbino”/“Olympia” style poses, in which the figures are overlaid in a kind of hybrid that seems to be between traditional cubist practice and seeing all the pages in a flick-book simultaneously. I cannot quite decide whether the goal is to show movement, or to overwhelm the viewer’s two eyes by multiplying the eyes of the (paradoxically) moving picture subject, but it is an interesting observation: a character in a film doesn’t have two eyes, but two eyes per frame. Therefore, in an extremely obtuse way, if the camera records 24 frames per second then a recorded character has 48 eyes per second. This is, of course, ridiculous, but in “Mirror” (2011-2012) this multiplication of eyes in the picture (perhaps over time, or Art History at least,) seems to have feminist import. The male-gendered gaze is overwhelmed by a host of overlaid “Olympia” style nudes staring back at it (Olympia herself is in there somewhere). It is an impressive way forward- not turning the head to profile, as in Barbara Kruger’s “Your gaze hits the side of my face”, but giving the subject either enormous irises or lots of overlaid pupils with which to look back. Saville traps us with work that produces both, and a precise melding of, empathy and perverse fascination in the gallery-goer, but without a safe glass camera lens to hide behind. It is a great, intimidating thing to have a gigantic spectacle look you in the eye and (only!) say: “Hello. What are you looking at?” There’s no escape for Pater anymore.
Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2012
Modern Art Oxford, to 16/09/2012 ****4 Stars