Jenny Saville returns to Gagosian this month in New York, bringing her iconic painterly style and remarkably attentive perspective towards the human body with her. The artist, whose past 25 years of practice have seen her delve into an ever-evolving interest in the nuanced erotics and endlessly narrative capacities of the human form, returns here to her frequent interest in couples and pairings of form, using intertwined bodies and interlocked figures to explore human relation and emotion.
There’s something of the transcendent in Saville’s paintings, an attempt to surge out and over the limitations of the lone human form to pursue an exploration of boundaries, both as limits in their own right, and equally as containers for humanity’s understanding of the self. Pushing languages of abstraction up to the surface of her portraits, Saville constantly disrupts easy readings of her figures, dotting their forms with flecks of visceral reds and browns that hint at the organs and veins that sit beneath the painted surface. Her work reveals a deep awareness, both intellectual and sensory, of how the body has been represented over time and across cultures—from fertility goddesses and antique and Hindu sculpture, to Renaissance drawing and painting, to the work of modern artists such as Henri Matisse, Willem de Kooning, and Pablo Picasso. Even down to her early work and research, in which the artist would study surgeons to understand the construction and layering of human flesh itself (much in the same way that Renaissance artists did), Saville’s pieces have delved into history as a way to refigure and re-explore the understanding of the body.
Here, that language of painterly history gets a vivid emphasis, pushing her work into a more collage-based engagement. Varied iconographies mingle and twist into hybrid forms, ancient art objects mixing with the bodies of her own sitters, or elsewhere, multiple sitters swirl around each other, gradually disappearing into a mass of humanity.
In her new paintings, the marks and traces of painting and drawing merge with their sculptural subjects, as well as with the living, changing, and perishable forms that figurative art depicts. Each of Saville’s brushstrokes contains both the mass and musculature of the body, and the expression of line and gesture. Their physical and metaphysical layering evokes questions of representation and of human flesh, to the internal and external compositions defining the human form.
The result is a vision of the human body that seems to take so many perspectives and depictions into account that any preconceived notions of humanity disintegrate under the weight of the accumulated information. For Saville, this act of collection and expression is perhaps her most striking achievement, a depiction of humanity that seems all the more lucid for its plural perspectives.
The show closes June 16th.
— D. Creahan
Jenny Saville at Gagosian [Exhibition Site]