What do you say about Jenny Saville? One of the Young British Artists who found fame in the early nineties, Saville remains perhaps best known for that first body of work she produced to fill London's Saatchi Gallery in 1994. Those paintings were brazen at the time, large and naked and very much anti-ideal. Saville confronted her audience without being combative. Her feminism proffered vulnerability. Arranging the naked form became her routine, and the nakedness, along with the British connection, led maybe inevitably to comparisons with Lucian Freud, a painter whose surfaces are as unpolished as his subjects, and comparison to whom is not a small compliment.
But that was 1994.
Two decades since those earliest works were snatched up, Jenny Saville at Florida's Norton Museum of Art puts old and new side by side, demonstrating both stark change and general continuity in the artist's work. The shock of the monumental, unlovely nude has certainly dulled with the passage of time, as has Saville's flirtation with bloody things. Women have remained her focus, though not so much the image of women. But without the confrontation of Saville's early subjects, what we're left with are just these paintings and drawings. And emphasis, unfortunately, must be placed on just.
Absent a powerful political message, Jenny Saville must be considered as a painter. That the artist is skilled there can still be no doubt. Her series Reproduction drawings, for example, demonstrates highly competent draftsmanship; strong linear development, replete with varied weights and cross-contours and utmost confidence — all the things we try to teach students in drawing class. Her paint application is equally facile, but how many MICA graduates paint just as well?
Comparisons to Freud are all well and good when we're considering the strange baseness of pale, human flesh, but what more does Saville have in common with the recently departed master? Looming large and bursting at the canvasses' edges, her figures are much too grandiose to share his concerns. And while Saville moved on to splashier, more demonstrative paint application, Freud's was a long obsession with coarse, awkward plainness. To her credit, Saville herself draws a contrast: "Freud's women are dead bodies; they lie there," she says. "I don't make those images." And as the Norton points out, "Critic Charles Darwent wrote about [Saville's Fulcrum] '[...] The echo is less of Freud than of Francis Bacon, humanity on the butcher's block.'" But is comparison to Bacon fair? Here again is the British connection, but the pain of a Bacon painting is abject. Even his paint is tortured, barely holding on. Saville's, by contrast, is smooth and easy. She likes that way paint flows.
More descriptive in the early years, the brushstrokes in much of this exhibition document Saville's tendency toward broader, more blatant mark-making. "I have moved away from the anatomy of the body to the anatomy of paint," she said. With a statement like that you might expect to see a painter like Willem de Kooning, whose figures were almost obliterated by "the anatomy of paint". But Saville's paint, rather than redefining her figures, remians wholly beholden to description. However free her brushstrokes almost are, they still subordinate themselves to her very reserved mosaic — and not a Chuck Close-like mosaic either. Heads so large as Saville's compare naturally to Close, but are not nearly straightforward enough to be so powerfully honest. Their roving gestures come across as forced, if not as forced as the containment of would-be wild brushstrokes within unsurprising portraits.
The most recent piece in Jenny Saville is Isis (2011), an over life-size portrait of a pregnant mother, and an exemplar of the artist's progress from her initial pluck into stardom. Gone is any hint of confrontation in this subject. The woman is placid, content, and, frankly, attractive. She is a contemporary embodiment of the Ancient Egyptian goddess of motherhood — or so it is indicated. Saville's description is lovely, but the content, including "ancient texts" projected across this woman's body, is entirely tacked on. Those splashy, overemphasized strokes of color have fortunately gone away, reverting to the simpler, softer approach. What we're looking at in the end is a portrait, plain and simple, forced lighting situation or no. There is not a hint of Freud, nor Bacon. Instead, the artist Jenny Saville resembles most closely with this canvas, more than any other I can think of, is John Singer Sargent, whom de Kooning called "a good, bad painter".