Jenny Saville has always reveled in rendering flesh. Her earliest show at Gagosian, at the tail end of the 90s, established her ambitious scope: big, generously impasto’d gestural nudes that flew in the face of current painting trends. Lucian Freud once famously said that he wanted his “paint to work as flesh.” Saville also focuses on “paint as flesh,” but not in the service of a heightened form of portraiture that physically embodies the sitter. Rather, Saville is interested in using paint to, as it were, flay the flesh she depicts, deconstructing her subject matter while simultaneously layering it with art historical references.
While that subject matter, usually large female nudes, has remained more or less constant, as has her flesh-and-blood-toned palette, Saville still manages to amaze with Ancestors, her suite of 11 monumental pieces, all completed in 2018. Her allusions to such seminal game-changers as Picasso’s Cubism and Bacon’s shape-shifting are blatant. But Saville’s paintings are kaleidoscopic pentimentos that riff not only on art history but her own well-developed draftsmanship. The longer one looks at a Saville canvas, the more various images, easily missed at first glance, emerge and converge. These iterations are particularly noticeable in her depictions of interlocking or overlapping hands and feet, occurring here in multiples and evoking Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
True to its name, the show’s thematic content pivots on ancient archetypes such as the Three Graces and the Pieta, as well as on African art–thus referencing not only Cubism itself, but the Cubists’ fascination with (so-called) primitivism. In Red Fates, three red, seated figures are loosely joined at shoulder and leg. The female figure on the left has her hand on the shoulder of a central, somewhat androgynous figure, their bent knees touching, while the figure on the right, her knee also bent, has her hand on the central figure’s foot, overlapping that figure’s hand, which is clasping the same foot. As with the other paintings in this series, the boldly stroked figuration is contrasted with sections of the painting that are drippy, or contain Twombly-like meandering lines or are slashed with gash-like impasto strokes on limbs or arms. It’s as if in each work, Saville is proclaiming: “Look Ma, I can paint!” The blood tones of this somewhat intimate image give it a slight undertow of violence or violation.
In Fate 1, Saville’s homage to Bacon is explicit. Here she emulates not only his trademark torqued pose but his pinkish-greyish-bluish palette. The graphic execution of the belly, breasts and thighs simultaneously evokes Freud’s unflinching gaze. In Fate 2, the same figure, with its African American head, faces the viewer, multiple arms and legs akimbo: the center of her body has become its own small abstract canvas. In Fate 3, which Saville has said is her favorite and is also the most extreme, the African-American head is now clearly sculpted ala the “primitive” works that inspired the Cubists, while the body is completely deconstructed and partially abstract, the pale background embellished with loopy Twombly-like scribbles.
The other works in Ancestors also channel art history. In Delos, (a mythic Greek island) which incorporates a charcoal drawing, two women and a man are seated, somewhat similarly to the Red Fates, and again with interlocking limbs. Two paintings of Vis and Ramin, (Vis and Ramin I and II) Persian lovers from an 11thcentury epic poem, dominate the next room. In the first, the male and female bodies, painted in reddish-pinksh tones, merge in the middle, obfuscated by abstract strokes. The painting is emphatically punctuated, like the other works in the show, by the repetition of hands clasped on knees or feet. In the second version of the work, the male and female are slightly more loosely intertwined. The woman now has a regal African-American face, and the painting looks realistic rather than allegorical. (In their deliberate scrambling of arms and legs, the composition of these paintings is vaguely reminiscent of Joan Semmel’s beautifully painted nudes.)
The last room is a departure from the first two, in both form and content. Blue Pieta and Byzantium both depict a male clasping a dead female. Blue Pieta is the painting closest to pure illustration. It shows a man in what looks like Medieval monk’s garb (although it has also been interpreted as a hoody) carrying a dead woman. Behind him can dimly be seen a vista with a castle-like structure. Byzantium has a similar composition. With its Byzantine-style gold background, and flatly painted icon-like male, holding a semi-abstracted, headless corpse with multiple limbs hanging, it has a dreamlike quality.
Perhaps the most moving image in the show is in some ways the simplest, and the least ostentatious in nature. In Chapter (for Linda Nochlin), one of three charcoal drawings in the show, Saville is clearly cleaving to something dear, honoring the feminist art historian and critic (famous for her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”) as the mother of mothers. Here the maternal figure is at the peak of an intricately drawn pyramid composed of the shifting, overlapping images of sleeping children, their innocent multiple arms and legs hanging like fringes. Saville has outdone herself in this composition, which, devoid of her characteristic carnal flesh, is both an ode to motherhood and a map to the carefully drafted infrastructure of her multilayered painting style.
Phoebe Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (1998), Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open (2014).