ART / She ain't heavy, she's my sister: Andrew Graham-Dixon reviews Jenny Saville at the Saatchi

Andrew Graham-Dixon
Tuesday 08 February 1994 00:02

Perched on a high stool, a large woman kneads her thighs and looks down her nose with an inscrutable expression that could be distress or lust. She is wearing a pair of white shoes and nothing else. Having been painted from a photograph taken through a fish-eye lens, she is accordingly distorted and her knees, faceted by light and by the slightly broken handling of the artist, look bruised and enormous. A text, scratched into the paint in mirror writing, runs across and down her body: 'If we continue to speak in this sameness - speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other again . . .'

Jenny Saville's Propped is a picture of a naked woman bulked out with references to fine art as well as to literature. The woman on a stool is a Rubens nude politically corrected: taught sad self-consciousness, made to realise that fat is a feminist issue. Heavy-handed, she exists to make a point.

Saville's pictures, seven of which are currently displayed within the hangar of the Saatchi Gallery, are evidently intended to disconcert. Like striking photographs, they reproduce singularly well, and that fact combined with their perennially topical subject matter and Charles Saatchi's well-advertised patronage has made Saville, temporarily at least, Britain's Most Talked About Young Artist. Vast paintings of vast female bodies, Saville's works are nakedly confrontational, images of women whose fatness is a source of formidability. A triptych of pictures of the same large woman seen, in her underwear, from different angles, may or may not allude to Van Dyck's well known triple portrait of Charles I. Saville's title, Strategy (South Face / Front Face / North Face), insists on the dumb mountainous quality of her semi-nude subject: woman seen, in the flesh, as a daunting obstacle, as massive as the Eiger.

These are paintings that are apt to be liked or disliked for all sorts of irrelevant or at least uninteresting reasons. Hard-line aesthetic conservatives, relieved to see a young artist painting at least reasonably competent pictures of the female nude, praise Saville for keeping the flame of a venerable tradition alight. Feminists praise her for reclaiming the image of woman, releasing it from the tyrannical objectifying male gaze (or words to that effect). This is Sarah Kent, in the catalogue to the current exhibition: 'By addressing the female nude as a subject as well as an object, she forces consideration of the prejudices that enslave us. In her hands the female nude is no longer the currency of conversations between men.' Such forms of admiration miss the distinctive peculiarity of Saville's art, although her paintings are not innocent of encouraging them: their marriage of somewhat self-conscious virtuosity and heavily flagged feminist ideology is doubtless responsible for the unlikely way in which they have united radically differing factions of the contemporary art world in their praise.

In the paintings themselves, virtuosity and verbosity seem at odds and Saville comes across as an artist with a divided temperament: a painter who is peculiarly suspicious of painting and whose art is consistently sabotaged by her reluctance to leave the job of signification to the image alone. Ideologically speaking, Saville's pictures are unimpeachable but dull, paintings that have been spoiled by the stitching into them, sampler-like, of worthy home truths. Branded is the most painful example of this self- sabotage, a painting of a naked woman into which various words have been etched as if in the attempt to scarify mute flesh into meaningfulness: 'supportive', 'precious', 'delicate', 'petite'. The point is clear enough (far too clear, in fact). Women are expected to have all kinds of supposedly feminine qualities which they may not feel able nor indeed wish to embody. The picture is about the gap between the reality of being a woman and the burden of social expectation placed on all women. Its shortcoming is that it expends itself too easily in a punchline, inviting the viewer to interpret and move on.

Saville's predicament, as a young artist (she is 23 years old), may be that she has mastered a technique for which she is yet to discover a true use. Her style is an assured and very British form of realism: puritanical, somewhat joyless, low- toned and harshly observational. Painting flesh, Saville opts for dirty mauve and sallow and the blueness of veins beneath the skin, which has the effect of making all her people look bruised and mottled, more than a little worn down by life. Dark brown, whorly tufts of pubic hair come with real tufts of pubic hair incorporated. This is realism rhetorically enhanced to suggest grittiness and rawness, a realness as real (the paint implies) as reality itself. The techniques employed are somewhat mannered and to anatomise Saville's style is to realise the extent to which her art has been constructed from borrowed devices. The pictures are full of giveaways, Freudian slips (Lucian, that is, not Sigmund) that betray indebtedness to the most morose of living British figurative painters. Saville has acquired, from Freud, not just the purgative colour schemes and isolated figures of her art but also some of its more striking forms of deliberate unpleasantness: notably the way flesh is rendered in pigment with curious added impurities, like butter with grit in it.

Saville has part learned and part developed for herself a style of painting that immediately suggests a certain and distinctly disillusioned view of the world and those who live in it: a vengeful and puritanical manner, which envisages human beings as isolated and essentially animal creatures whose chief activity is a troubled waiting for death. The uses to which she puts such a style, however, suggest that she is unsure what to do with the weight of pessimism implicit within it. The addition of words to the canvas looks like an admission of failure, an artist trying to graffiti her work into another dimension. The wordless paintings in which Saville struggles to do something new and positive with her gloomy realism are also, generally, less than successful because style and message seem so oddly opposed to one another. The woman in the triple portrait, for instance, seems truculent, proud of her heavy realness like a Freud sitter suddenly allowed to develop some attitude; but the style of the painting, so mutely uninterested in human personality and so glumly attentive to the registering of mortal fact, runs counter to anything like celebration.

The most effective pictures are the least strident and also the most morally convinced of the destiny of flesh. Plan pictures a woman (it is said to be a self-portrait) staring mutely down the length of her body, which has been marked out for cosmetic surgery, and the painting would seem to be about the pointlessness of fantasy, the foolishness of dreaming of making yourself other. Trace, a picture of a naked female back and bottom, marked by bra-strap and knicker- elastic, finds cause for depression in the most mundane of images, envisaging life as a continual scarring of the self by experience. This is the cleverest and least ponderous picture in the show, because its apparent subject is so banal. But on the evidence so far, it is hard to see how Saville will avoid turning into a dourly Expressionist figure painter, into School of Lucian Freud. Frequent exposure to Matisse might prove beneficial.

(Photographs omitted)

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