- Jenny Saville
Gagosian Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2005
Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville: Territories, October - December 1999, pp. 46-47, no. 46, illustrated in colour
Patricia Ellis, 100: The Work that Changed British Art, London 2003, p. 33, no. 11, illustrated in colour
Exh. Cat., Rome, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Roma, Jenny Saville, January - May 2005, pp. 56-57, illustrated in colour
John Gray et al., Jenny Saville, New York 2005, p. 45, illustrated in colour
Edward Booth-Clibborn, Ed., The History of the Saatchi Gallery, London 2011, p. 340, illustrated in colour; and p. 398, illustrated in colour (installed in Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, Royal Academy of Arts, London)
Exh. Cat., Zurich, Kunsthaus Zürich, Egon Schiele - Jenny Saville, October 2014 - January 2015, p. 23, no. 9, illustrated in colour
Sensation was undoubtedly the most provocative and ground-breaking exhibition of contemporary art Britain had ever witnessed. On the 18 September 1997 record queues twisted around Burlington House for the opening of the controversial exhibition within. The unparalleled media storm surrounding this event launched a barrage of stories in the news with headlines such as: ‘Artrage!’ at the ‘Royal Academy of Porn!’ which caught the attention of a captive public. Amidst this media frenzy, the exhibition witnessed an unprecedented series of events: a record-breaking 300,000 visitors attended, Royal Academicians resigned and protestors picketed the entrance in outrage. The 42 young British artists whose work adorned the walls of the Academy’s central galleries triggered such an extraordinary and intense response in part because of their innovative recourse to reality and real life itself. Indeed, it is testament to their exceptional power that they could rouse such fervent reactions in a public that was so infamously apathetic to contemporary art. The YBA’s unique discourse on visceral experience was perhaps most fully felt in Gallery II, which the gallery guide noted dealt with “the body and its cultural representation” (Exh. Pamphlet, Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, 1997, n.p.). Here the tangible, tactile flesh of Saville’s Shift was masterfully juxtaposed with the physicality of Sarah Lucas’s stuffed hosiery Bunny, and Chris Ofili’s notorious The Holy Virgin Mary, which was punctuated by primal balls of elephant dung. These disparate works were nonetheless united in their mutual corporeality, through which the viewer was forced to physically relate these pieces to their own bodies. As Saville expounds, “It is not just about the sight of the body. It’s about the feel, the touch and the smell of the body. It’s not about the primacy of vision, it’s about using paint, its materiality, in a way that can evoke tactility” (Jenny Saville in conversation with Martin Gayford, in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville: Territories, 1999, p. 30). Furthermore, standing in front of Shift in these historic halls, the visitors to Sensation would have been compelled to interrogate the history of female objectification by male painters, and the storied tradition of idealisation in Western art: a construct that is at the very heart of Saville’s artistic enquiry.
Though representing an interrogation of art historical tradition, Shift is also a painterly tour de force. Glutinous, pulpy brush strokes dance across the canvas exuding a captivating and palpable tactility that amplifies the work’s searing and intense realism. Executed with Saville’s typical aplomb, virtuoso painterly marks meld and morph, contouring the sumptuous surfaces of the figures’ flesh whilst soft wisps of scumbled paint pick out the faint traces of bodily hair. Her beguiling, fluent strokes instantly draw the viewer into the painting whilst its monumental scale requires the viewer to take a step back, and in doing so, Shift enacts a push/pull dichotomy. As Saville explains: “It's the effect of intimacy through scale that I want. Although large paintings are so often associated with grandeur, I want to make large paintings that are very intimate. I want the painting to almost surround your body when you stand very close to it. Rothko creates an intimacy through scale. When you stand very close to his paintings the colour hums and vibrates through you – it almost wraps around you. It's a childlike feeling… They give you a physical experience; it's not just about looking... I want the feeling that you don't only command the piece of work, the piece of work also commands you” (Ibid., p. 31).
The carnal rendering of flesh in Shift is born of Saville’s lifelong preoccupation with the body and skin as represented by the masters of art history; Diego Velázquez, Peter Paul Rubens, Francis Bacon, and Lucian Freud amongst others. For Saville, however, one painting stood out in particular: Chaïm Soutine’s Carcass of Beef in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. It is in Shift that we experience her debt to this extraordinary painting more so than anywhere else in her oeuvre – the way the limbs are drawn and hung out like a carcass in a butcher’s shop is more than just a nod to the Russian master. On the other hand, the frontality of the present work owes much to de Kooning’s Women as does the way that the body folds out and envelops the canvas. Indeed, de Kooning famously said that flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented and nowhere could this be said to be more true than in Shift. Succulent, tactile, sensual and exhibited in all of the artist’s major exhibitions, Shift undeniably is Saville at her very best.