Written On A Body If you only see one art exhibition this year, I've got two words for you: Jenny Saville. Fresh from her recent appearance at the cynically manipulated and inanely maligned "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, this thoroughly British artist has upped the ante on the high-stakes field of contemporary painting. By straightforwardly embracing traditional painting conventions, shuttling the kneejerk ironical impulse, turning a colder eye toward the great tradition of the nude, and churning out wildly contemporary representations of female bodies the size of field tractors with what can only be called virtuoso skill, Saville has thrown down the gauntlet to anyone fool enough to query today's most authoritative art practice. For rampant unbelievers?those dung-flinging conservatives and toadyish politicians, and the art worldies still parroting the "painting is dead" canard?a health warning like the one provided by the Brooklyn Museum's invitation is well in order. You may experience nausea, shock, vomiting, confusion and other stupefying symptoms on learning that Jenny Saville's exhibition shows everyone, unequivocally, how it's really done.
Saville, who is just 29, is a painter's painter. Like no one else in recent memory, she mines the historical crisis of the nude starting as far back as the Renaissance, through Courbet's detached reportage, up to recent photographic representations of women, both of the fashionable (which she implicitly criticizes) and the distinctly unfashionable kind (which she portrays).
In her first New York solo exhibition, the young but wise Saville confronts painting's ghosts and its post-photographic future, updating classical figuration with current social and personal concerns that her pigment soaks up like a hungry sponge. Much more substantively contemporary than Damien Hirst, evoking a quietude more classical than Rachel Whiteread's, and loads more technically accomplished than Chris Ofili, Jenny Saville is the Brit from the Brit Pack we would do best to remember not to forget.
Until quite recently, Jenny Saville was, to use a bank-clerky English term, engaged by Mr. Charles Saatchi via direct contract. An astoundingly Florentine arrangement, the contract essentially employed the artist to confect her enormous pictures exclusively for the pleasure of Saatchi, a dealer known to trade in artists' egg-fragile reputations with the cunning of a Gonzaga and the ruthlessness of an Attila the Hun. Saville's newly inaugurated "exclusive arrangement" with the Gagosian Gallery?which also represents other high-profile YBAs, like the unfortunately ubiquitous Hirst, infantile Dinos and Jake Chapman, weirdo Marc Quinn, and longtime New York resident Cecily Brown?while not improving upon the artist's quality of human intercourse, guarantees New York art audiences increasing exposure to her astoundingly beautiful work. And that, from a good look at Jenny Saville's rich first solo show, is a thing worth celebrating.
Saville's material, besides messy, troweled-on, all-over paint, is fat: the adipose, fleshy substance that ratchets away the sex-starved gaze from notable corpulence and turns men and women, but particularly women, into weight-obsessed masochists. Saville observes, meditates on and depicts chub that is spare tires beyond Velazquez's and Rubens' rubicundity. Naked, humongous, womanly heft is Saville's game, the unabashed and elephantine depiction of ladies who could, with a single flick of their immense power, literally eat Calista Flockhart for breakfast while punting Oprah into the nobody-o-sphere of weight-gainer's anonymity.
Rendered in large rectangular blocks of pigment, monumental in size and scale, Saville's Gulliverian women take on dimensions even larger than the equestrian statues that litter Central Park. In the cramped, extremely discomfited anxiety of Saville's female portraits, we are confronted by Grand Canyon-sized expanses of sexual tension and pure, unadulterated feminine brawn. Additional layers of meaningful mystery accrue to Saville's views of the overwhelmingly feminine when we learn that a great many of the faces depicted in the paintings are indeed portraits of herself (the slightly built artist is a mere wispy 5 feet, 2 inches tall) or of family and friends.
There are also the cuts to consider, regularly depicted scarifications that Saville tucks into the folds and creases made by her subjects' mounded, roiling flesh, with the precision of the cosmetic surgeons who have inspired her (the gallery release claims that she once worked for a plastic surgeon in New York). Saville has, on occasion, commented on her interest if not obsession with plastic surgery. In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph a couple years ago, the artist spoke of having spent six months sitting in on breast and nose jobs at a surgeon's clinic, and of her collection of photographs of female fatties, sewn-up wounds and flesh transplants (one of her British precursors, Francis Bacon, also collected similar photographs in his Reece Mews studio). "What fascinated me was the rhetoric used by plastic surgeons," Saville said, invoking what she called the surgeons' "fascist ideas about beauty." "They talked in terms of what's natural...they have neatly worked out the plumb lines of the perfect face."
Saville's hugely dimensioned women wear liposuction scars like land masses do gullies; stretchmarks score their flab in the manner of contour lines a map. Mountains of tension mark hieratic, foreshortened bodies; breasts, glutei maximi and assorted fat rolls push upward like volcanoes; belly buttons, flesh folds and butt cracks swallow up the eye vertiginously like valleys and crevasses of candid distress.
One marvelous painting now on view, Hyphen, a vision of two awkwardly posed girls' heads, displays swathes and swathes of layered paint overlapping in that nearly abstract Saville way, looking as if they were applied with a squeegee. Another, Ruben's Flap, presents a sliced up, cubist-inspired arrangement of three bodies slipping into one; a view of an abundant naked-girl trio through a distorting prism. A third, an amazing and equally gigantic work titled Hem, contains what is certainly the dirtiest bush in the history of painting. Saville's psychic violence is on plain view here: in the thick, splotchy, dirt-brown application of the pubic triangle and the contrasting plaster-colored anointing covering the figure's entire right side. But there's still Matrix to speak of, the piece de resistance of this generous exhibition of six tremendous paintings. Modeled by a transsexual named Del LaGrace Volcano (an apt alias if ever there was one), Matrix portrays a 10-foot-long, Marine-butch naked woman with mustache and tattoo, her back arched in an aggressive floor exercise that has her cunt completely?to use a trite, rarely accurate expression?in your face.
Matrix speaks volumes about Saville's amazingly confident, technically masterful version of the nude. Her choice to let the bright red-orange ground peek through just at the naughty bits, for one, deserves a standing ovation. So does her assertive and unique sexual frankness, a hard-won, often counterfeited perspective best explored this last half-century by two relentlessly honest Englishmen: Stanley Spenser and Lucian Freud. Often imitated, but rarely duplicated, this sort of maturity is extremely rare in an artist today, especially in artists as young as Saville. In looking for "a way to paint a body that wasn't in a traditional way," Saville copped the idea of painting bodies as a "sort of mountain face, so that you couldn't assess them very easily. It was almost that they assessed you." Her success in achieving this task is one of the few things capable of dwarfing her gigantic, brilliantly executed paintings.