Critics’ Picks

Jenny Saville, Red Stare Head I, 2007–11, oil on canvas, 106 1/4 x 86 5/8".

Jenny Saville, Red Stare Head I, 2007–11, oil on canvas, 106 1/4 x 86 5/8".


Jenny Saville

Modern Art Oxford
30 Pembroke Street
June 22–September 16, 2012

Jenny Saville’s ferocity while piling, pushing, and scraping oil on her massive canvases appears to wall her subjects into their bodies. Her retrospective at Modern Art Oxford demonstrates her evocative use of paint to articulate the experiences, not only the appearances, of blind, transsexual, obese, and brutally scarred people. As in the art of Lucian Freud, Chaim Soutine, and Francis Bacon, paint itself here appears uncommonly heavy, angry, and oppressive. Yet her choice of subjects and methods of depiction are ultimately empathetic.

Saville’s work’s gestural nature recalls academic life drawing, although she usually paints from photographs. This studied quality is especially pronounced in her new work: drawings upon drawings, interpreting Renaissance Virgin and Child paintings. In these large-scale pieces, debuting at both Modern Art Oxford and the nearby Ashmolean Museum, mother and child seem to squirm and fuss across the page. Inspired by Saville’s own recent motherhood, this series evinces a rough quality that conveys the physical experience of tending to a new child, set against the timeless and frozen grandeur she evokes by referencing Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo.

These drawings are thought-provoking and personal ruminations on maternity and art history. Yet they are overshadowed here by the pathos of her earlier paintings. In her strongest work, especially her paintings of obese bodies, Saville’s use of paint eloquently represents people whose appearance develops like Hemingway’s description of his character Mike Campbell’s bankruptcy: “Gradually, then suddenly.” Her ability to express this troubling and potentially alienating experience is uniquely strong, respectful, and moving.