Beauty is the Beast: The paintings of Jenny Saville

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Jenny Saville; Photo credit Kristine Schomaker

Beauty is the Beast: The paintings of Jenny Saville

O that this too, too solid flesh would melt” ~ Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2
Your body is a battleground” ~Barbara Kruger

Written by Nancy Kay Turner
On February 12, The Broad hosted painter Jenny Saville and scholar Jennifer Doyle in conversation as part of their entertaining and evocative series entitled “ THE UN-PRIVATE COLLECTION.” Their previous conversations have paired artist Robert Longo with musician Henry Rollins, sculptor Thomas Houseago with musician Flea and artists Mark Bradford, Sharon Lockhart and art historian Katy Siegal. These ingenious pairings of electric and eclectic personalities have produced far-reaching, robust and vibrant discussions on diverse contemporary art topics. In this case, an investigation of beauty and body image through a thorough examination of Jenny Saville’s iconic figurative imagery. This thoughtful coupling brings Jennifer Doyle, author of Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (how appropriate) along to steer the conversation of Saville’s seductively beautiful paintings of bodies battered by brutality, elective surgery and even gunshot wounds. Saville said that she actually had a plastic surgeon friend who allowed her to accompany him into surgery for a first hand look at liposuction and other elective procedures designed to refigure the body into a presumably more attractive or acceptable shape. That unabashed curiosity and steely tenacity are an integral part of her work as she paints unadorned and unambiguously corpulent female nudes, literally in mural scale. These Amazonian women peer down at the viewer from a great height that intentionally magnifies their scale, heft and importance, creating unforgettable images brimming with swagger, brio, and ambition.

The discussion was held at The Broad itself instead of the Ace Theater (which has more comfortable seats and better sight lines). However, Saville’s paintings, and shots of many of her favorite images- such as the iconic Venus of Willendorf next to a vigorous Abstract Expressionistic De Kooning painting of a woman, were prominently displayed on the enormous screen. These images were streamed as the conversation rolled on and were not necessarily referred to, allowing the viewers to make their own connections. This is different from the ordinary artist Power Point and was refreshingly researched, making art historical connections between the female figure throughout art history from pre-historic plump fertility goddesses to Peter Paul Rubens “The Rape of the Sabine Women” (a #metoo moment if there ever was one) to De Kooning’s ABEX paintings of women.

Jenny Saville burst on the scene, along with Damien Hirst, in the early nineties as part of a vibrant and unconventional group, which became the “YBA” (Young British Artists.) Her audacious scale, vivid imagery, juicy paint handling and pastel hued skin color helped skyrocket her to fame. Painting the nude in the nineteen-nineties was still a subversive act of defiance (unless you were Lucien Freud.) Freud sometimes paints plus size models and yet his paintings are more traditional. Saville works from multiple photographs and not only builds her paintings in layers but with a different and disturbing content. Freud’s paintings are all about observation and Saville’s have a subtext that explores the complexities of body image, demonstrating how the female body is ravaged by violence.

Saville, who has two children, talked about her how her process has changed since becoming a mother. Noting wryly that it’s necessary to be more efficient in the studio and that there is no time to hang around and ponder, “I don’t believe in inspiration. It is a luxury I can’t afford, ” she said. As a good mother, she comes home from the studio to be with her kids, but then returns to the studio once they are asleep –describing a level of obsession which is required to continually produce good works.

Saville uses charcoal to great effect in her large works and described (with a dry sense of humor) a happy accident that affected how she worked. Since charcoal creates a lot of dust, Saville keeps her “hoover” (vacuum) nearby and accidentally “hoovered” a line of charcoal off her canvas. Delighted at the effect, she began to use it as a really large eraser for subtraction. Her newest works look like archaeological digs –with both male and female nudes lying horizontally in an indistinct jumble of body parts. Saville calls these images “transgendered” though “ungendered” might be more accurate. Legs, arms, body parts and genitalia appear, disappear, and seem to migrate from body to body, through hazes of charcoal, leaving traces of her decisions visible, marking the compression of both time and experience. These elegant works have an arabesque line quality.

Saville loves flesh and her work is about the experience of being in a body. As the images of her work flashed on the screen, one could see her fascination with the injured body or face distorted, swollen, scaly, the eyes staring blankly or filled with emptiness. There is a contradiction between the brutality of the image and the juiciness of the paint. She referenced Franz Hals’ wonderful, jaunty, loosely painted portraits, and Velasquez’s painting of the Pope. It was very revealing to see the wide range of her influences from mythology, goddesses, to poetry and even scenes from films. These are all part of her process in constructing a painting, which she called “ memory in pictorial form.” The evening was delightful as both Doyle and Saville talked about the work with a minimum of jargon and with a refreshing honesty. The audience came away with an enhanced understanding of the complexities of Saville’s work, her processes, her relationship to feminism and her place in the history of figurative painting.

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