There is no beginning or end to the Jenny Saville show just a continuum of feelings held inside the viewer inspired by the subjects in the portraits. Faces look indirectly out of the huge canvases through large glassy eyes as typified in ‘Atonement Studies’. Sometimes the artist herself is the subject either as a child with a sibling (in ‘Hyphen’) or as an adult sitting in the role of motherhood in her recent Renaissance inspired drawings. The drama of each piece is often traced back to the anatomy of the mouth of the image for example ‘Red Head Stare 1’ holds a bold grimace of attrition.
All of the oil canvasses are mammoth, equalling the size of an average kitchen wall and offering a decadent display of the human form. The work is loosely figurative, for example in ‘Witness’ a ripped bottom lip shows possibly the result of a crash. This violent image is inspired by J G Ballard’s novel ‘Crash’. Most brush strokes are broad with strong gestures behind them. Saville uses juicy nude colour tones to turn paint effortlessly into glowing bodies of living flesh. Possibly due to the people-watching the artist is believed to do whilst preparing a piece, a contemporary story emerges from the flesh on display here such as in the body dynamics of ‘Fulcrum’ where a mass of bodies lie intertwined. Saville’s technique also pumps ongoing stories into subjects that have no life left, offering detailed work inspired by the contents of mortuaries and abattoirs as shown in the graphic ‘Torso 2’.
The markers of proportion taken by eye from the bodies in front of Saville may be exaggerated when translated to the page as suggested in ‘Trace’, an outsized portrait of the back view of a large lady wearing bra and knickers. The painting extends a dream world quality to the gallery space. A few drawings of this Oxford-based Artist are also currently being displayed in the nearby Ashmolean Museum.
As subjects bombard viewers with their copious superficial scars, any bloodlust returns softly back to nature thanks to the organic wispy background of the compositions. Charcoal and pastel are both used on paper to create two different qualities of line work in Saville’s drawings. By contrast, looking back at the oil paintings momentarily feels like a glass surface separates them from the viewer’s vision. The main topic Saville addresses now is motherhood and her sketches bear this out. Stemming from classical Italian inspiration, Renaissance cherubs emerge from a kernel of mothers crowded around the baby. The child resembles a seed that cracks open after too much sun to find life.
Whilst the outside world has to be faced, working artists shed this notion and remain poised in the gallery for much of the day sketching with sharp pencils outlining the shapes that suggest themselves for example in Saville’s ‘Ruben’s Flap’ body shapes overlap and is a popular subject. The titles of the paintings provide a definite noun that contrasts with the unfathomable nature of the content, such as whether the pieces are truly figurative.
In all paintings, unwieldy paint strokes splash outside the lines but before the meaning of the subject matter blurs like a good parent, the enclosed image shows us how to be stoic on the inside. Vibrant skin, painted with a wide brush, is punctured to break up conventional beauty all around the gallery however the story of the person inside the skin remains vivid. Some pain can be faced after all.
Lita Doolan (DI Reviewer), 09/07/12
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