Picture by Geraint Lewis
Jenny Saville’s name belongs with the other YBAs of the 1990s, but she has waited longer to have her first UK solo exhibition.
While Damien Hirst has a retrospective this summer at Tate Modern and Tracey Emin had one last year at the Hayward and is now showing in Tate Margate, Saville’s show is in the cosier surroundings of Modern Art Oxford, in the city where she has her studio.
The exhibition includes works from the 1990s until the present – with one being finished just the day before the exhibition opened, and another being framed and hung in the gallery on the press preview day.
Some of them have dates of several years on, and Saville said there were varying reasons for that; some she came back to years later and added to, to keep the painting looking fresh, and others she’d get dogmatic about adding to repeatedly.
The paintings start with the large women works from the 1992, including Trace, a woman’s back view with the marks on it left from a too-tight bra and knickers. There’s several – Fulcrum, Ruben’s Flap, Brace and Hyphen – where bodies shown in unforgiving close up seem to be merging together.
There’s Entry of 2004-5, a woman’s face looking as if she’s been beaten, but apparently a copy of a birthmarked face, and Torso II, what appears to be the body of a pig strung up. Passage is another remarkable study, of a transgendered person with feminine face and breasts, but male genitalia thrusting, legs apart, towards the artist and viewer. It’s brazen and brave, the lines strong, forcing you to look.
The Stare portraits from 2007-11 are some that have been refreshed with new paint, and invite questions.
The drawings of the past few years take on a different look. There’s still nudity, but it’s of a woman and child, some self portraits of Saville, with one or two little boys, apparently created after she became a mother.
Her focus has changed, with the influence from Madonna and Child works of the Renaissance masters, and a Leonardo cartoon referenced in one. In some there are multiple layers of work, especially Study of Isis and Horus, and Study for Pentimenti I, with the layering creating a moving, blurring effect. In some the mother is smiling, in others most obviously like Saville she looks more thoughtful, seemingly wrestling with one child while she’s heavily pregnant with another.
Over at the Ashmolean, two of these later works, Reproduction drawing IV (after the Leonardo cartoon) and Study for Pentimenti III are hung in the Italian Renaissance Gallery between works by artists including Titian and Michaelangelo, making a trip through the city streets necessary to complete this viewing.
It’s a powerful exhibition of mostly large paintings, showing a relatively small but deeply-considered body of work.