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9 September 2012

In the flesh - Jenny Saville at Modern Art Oxford

There was me thinking, on the train ride into Oxford that, ‘In the flesh’ would be a great title for the post on Oxford based painter, Jenny Saville, whose exhibition at the ‘Modern Art Oxford’ I was visiting that Wednesday 5th September. I’d never seen any of Saville’s paintings in person only glimpsing over a few reproductions I’d seen in books and lectures (and of course the Manic Street Preachers album cover, ‘Journal for plague lovers’). However, I knew enough from looking at those images of her paintings that the human form is her primary subject matter and that she had a very painterly (bordering on abstract) style that gave her paintings a raw, physical and fleshy quality. I also suspected that upon the opportunity to see her work, ‘in the flesh’, would make this interpretation even more prominent. Little did I know that my moment of inspiration on the train had already been thought of by the majority of the Oxford press, making it not so original, but what did I care, it turned out to be so painstakingly appropriate that I couldn’t but help use it here on this weeks’ post.
(left) 'Brace' 1998-99. Oil on canvas. 118 x 71 inches (right) 'Hyphen' 1998-99. Oil on canvas. 108 x 144 inches *
In the same way that seeing Edward Hopper’s painting of ‘Nighthawks’ was so much brighter and luminous in real life than the dingy reproductions, Jenny Saville’s nudes and portraits of burn victims were so much more visceral and layered than what I had previously seen. Saville herself talks about how her painting style borders on the abstract, the gestural marks of paintbrushes can be seen in dragged, twisted and pulled motions across the canvas. Dozens of tones of colour are layered, overlapping, pouring into one another that up-close look like an abstract painted surface. It is not until you pull-back that those shades of yellow, blue, grey, pink, red, brown form to make a cheek, thigh or breast. An accurately painted glassy, staring eye that pokes out amidst these marks also remind the viewer all too clearly that it is not an abstract painting they are looking at. You can get lost in looking at the mark-making, the dabs, the strokes, the drips, the splats of paint. The surface of the canvas itself is like a second skin that Saville, in almost the opposite way to a surgeon, is trying to un-heal. She uses the palette knife to scrape, scratch and pull paint and even leaving some areas of the canvas literally raw, so that the textured surface is peeking through. The affect that all of this has is a very rich and intensely built-up surface that is very visibly physical if not even violent. Her technique has often been described as being more sculptural than painterly. There is nothing half-hearted about these paintings, they’re gutsy! And in saying that they’re gutsy it reiterates what I said earlier about the bodily and fleshy qualities present by not only the subject matter of the human form, but the painted surface creating it.
'Fullcrum' 1997-99. Oil on canvas. 103 x 192 inches +
When I did step back from the painted surface to look at the paintings as a whole, I was equally not disappointed. All of those gestures, all of that paint make the appearance of weight and mass. What better way to depict flesh, bodies and the human form? Saville, like Lucian Freud is not shy from depicting larger women which she does in the exhibition in a series of paintings in the first room depicting the measuring, marking and constriction of the female form. They almost appear like landscapes in the way they undulate and are made up of multiple layers. Her later works explore medical (i.e. extreme burn victims) and social categorisation. As I viewed these massive paintings in the gallery I couldn’t help but hear the sounds of other visitors’ shoes squeaking which was amplified on the gallery’s wooden floor. This coincidental sound somehow ironically added to the uncomfortable feeling you get when you view Saville’s paintings. Squeaking being a sort-of irritating sound that can make you wince and also has a kind-of clinical association (squeaky clean) that personally fills me with the same unease of going into a hospital. Anyway, I couldn’t help feel all this squeaking made me look at Saville’s paintings depicting burnt burnt flesh slightly differently (or at least gave me a heightened feeling of unease). They’re both beautiful and uncomfortable at the same time. It is easy to see that there are definitely a lot of references both in subject and painting style to Bacon’s paintings in the work as well as Soutine. If you were to particularly focus on the drawings exhibited downstairs in this exhibition then you’d also probably make associations the work has with Rembrandt. The drawings in this exhibition present a very different side to Saville, whilst they still depict the female form (this time they are specifically of motherhood) and are still very gestural and multi-layered; they are different in the way they are so much more gentle and sensitive in contrast to the dynamic paintings upstairs. The contrast is interesting and acts as a reminder to Saville’s outstanding technical ability as a draftswoman as well as a painter. I cannot say enough good things about this exhibition, it was bold, beautiful and one of the best painting exhibitions I have had the pleasure to see this year. I regret that unless you have actually seen (or are going to see) this exhibition then these images and descriptions are going to never going to match the awe of the experience of viewing these massive and in my view, spectacular paintings. I would encourage anyone to go see this exhibition. In the mean time, I for one am so glad I got to see it in person, in the flesh.
Jenny Saville is on at Modern Art Oxford until September 16th

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