Jenny Saville

Gagosian Gallery

Jenny Saville paints women’s bodies— bodies distorted to the point of being grotesque—but she also just paints, with an energy that enlivens her otherwise bloated, inert, sometimes carcasslike subjects. Much of the female body in Hem, 1998–99, for example, is composed of abstract passages of pure paint, which at once flatten the corpulent flesh and render it luminous. This raw painterliness subverts Saville’s illustrational tendencies, but it also gives her image an aggressive edge: In the act of dissolving the figure into “pure art,” the paint seems to sear the body, suggesting that it is inwardly wounded. Hence the gestural dimension of Saville’s painting supplements the image even as it negates it—an ambiguity on a par with the inherent contradictoriness of her handling, which ranges from considered to spontaneous. Her vivid whites, in paintings like Matrix, 1999, Brace, 1998–99, and Fulcrum, 1998–99, are carefully attuned to the areas of darker, more mottled flesh color, at once adding to their sense of fullness and making those passages seem abstract.

Saville’s feat is to combine the obscenity of the human with a strong hint of transcendent beauty. The figure is usually the artist herself, or else a surrogate, making her paintings investigations into the mystery of her own womanhood. Ruben’s Flap, 1998–99, is a narcissistic tour de force. Saville multiplies her body, letting it fill the pictorial space as it does in other works, but what is interesting is the fragmentation: Decisive lines divide the body into square planes, as if there were no other way of conquering its nakedness. Saville seems to be struggling to convince herself that the parts of her body are beautiful.

If, as Freud said, appreciation of the genital organ’s primitive beauty is displaced and diffused onto the body as a whole as we grow older, then it can be said that Saville, brilliantly regressive, restores beauty to the primitive genital organ. In Matrix, the female genitalia is spread open, a gesture that is usually associated with pornographic imagery but here, as in Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World, ca. 1866, seems to blankly register the source of creation. The hard, closed expression of the figure’s face is at odds with the soft, open vulva, but the latter is more to the point of the picture than the face, which is in a distant corner, as though the head were unable to fathom its own biological basis.

The tender symbiotic fusion of sleeping female figures in Fulcrum—Courbet again seems a point of reference, especially his Sleep, 1866—is an apotheosis of generative female abundance. If this is feminism in pictorial action, it is less ideological than intimate. Men are shut out of the picture because they have objectified women. Saville reclaims female subjectivity by emphasizing woman’s potent flesh. It may be, as has been too often suggested, that Saville is a decadent disciple of an already-decadent Lucian Freud, but it makes all the emotional difference that it is a woman who is rendering her own body and desire.

Donald Kuspit