Critics’ Picks

Reverse, 2003.

Reverse, 2003.

London

Jenny Saville

Gagosian Gallery
6-24 Britannia Street
April 5–May 3, 2003

Jenny Saville’s 1999 show at Gagosian, which marked her US solo debut, demonstrated that she’d transcended associations with the Saatchi stable. Her strange imagery included a transgendered odalisque and women’s heads and torsos stacked or laid over one another like photographs taken through a faceted lens. But the most unsettling thing about these monumental nudes was Saville’s style itself: dramatic cropping and foreshortening; brushwork that was aggressive in some areas, nearly mute in others; and a morbid palette of flesh tones. Saville referred as much to Rubens and Courbet as to Lucian Freud; any grotesquery seemed like an assimilation of gender theory, evidence of her sophistication in contrast to those simply outrageous YBAs.

With the six paintings in “Migrants,” Saville evinces a continuing desire to unnerve, but she relies on imagery, rather than method, to do so. The compositions are mostly plain, the subject matter typified by the only still life: a blood-red slaughtered hog with nipples studding its belly (Suspension, 2002–2003). Violence against women, suggested obliquely in Saville’s earlier work, now elbows other meanings aside. A shrieking, half-clothed woman smeared with blood (Pause, 2002–2003) might be viewed as, say, a symbol of war’s unintended casualties—if not for her restraint by a male hand.

But even at her most bombastic, Saville remains a virtuoso: Partially overlapping planes of color—heavy on the reds and browns—shear away from the canvas in a manner as resistant to mere representation as Cézanne’s. Two paintings of disembodied heads, one of each gender, return the viewer’s gaze with the power of an indictment. The female one (Reverse, 2002) lies on its side, a bit of shoulder visible, staring out with wide eyes and puffy, parted lips. The battered face projects benumbed withdrawal, a caricature of beer-ad desire; who hasn't seen that face across an expanse of pillow (or floor)? In such a context, the male head (Aperture, 2002–2003) appears as a gruesome Holofernes, its one open eye neither wholly leering nor wholly innocent. I wondered not whether he had it coming, but how much.