“[T]he eyes of the boy – as the word stare indicates – matter greatly. She intensifies his gaze by leaving his mouth ajar, evocative of moments of shock of revelation. But nothing indicates what the boy is staring at. That remains private.”
The present work belongs to a series of paintings and works on paper focused on the same motif and composition – that of a young boy looking out of the picture plane, mouth ajar, as though in some inscrutable state of shock. The first instance of its appearance belongs to Stare (2004-05) in the Broad Collection and finds further iteration in three other major works on canvas Red Stare Head I, II and IV, as well as the present Stare III. Androgynous and child-like, the gender, age and identity of this figure is left ambiguous; while, akin to other unidentified subjects in Jenny Saville’s output, possessing aspects of the artist’s own physiognomy. Rendered in a palette that verges on the monochromatic, save the overriding pale blue tonality and punctuating undertones and reveals of pale pink and burnt sienna, this painting broaches the subject of the gaze across the tradition of painting. Having earned her reputation as a painter of excessive female flesh, the strong feminist dialogue at stake in Saville’s work once again comes to the fore in these works via their apparent scrutiny of the ‘male gaze’. And yet, such a reading is simultaneously complicated by gender ambiguity and age, while the impossibility of knowing what the boy is staring at further destabilizes our understanding. Saville started work on this painting in 2006, almost a decade after she first 'arrived' on the contemporary art scene as part of Charles Saatchi’s landmark exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. Poignant and haunting, yet almost violent in its execution, the work shifts compellingly from loose and brazen brushstrokes, to an almost photographic palette to offer a deeply evocative and poetic contemplation of the politics of embodiment and looking.
The late 2000s were a significant period for Saville: she gave birth to her first child in 2007, followed closely by her second in 2008, and has spoken extensively on how her experiences of pregnancy and motherhood profoundly impacted her practice: “Making flesh in my body and the animalistic nature of giving birth affected my view of nature”, she has stated; “The simultaneous realities I’ve been trying to generate in my work over the past few years, the strata and layering, came about through drawings I made after having children. It opened out a new way for me to create space and movement” (J. Saville in conversation with S. Mann in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville, 2018, p. 30). Painted over an 8 year period, this painting bridges these two distinct periods in Saville's career. Composed from slowly-layered, tactile swathes of paint, Stare III is indeed charged with a vital internal dynamism. Hovering elusively between figuration and abstraction, the paintwork here threatens to fracture and blur into dissolution. As broad, haphazard brushstrokes dissolve from a cheekbone into biomorphic shapes, the work is rendered as both self-consciously painterly and powerfully real.
“Making flesh in my body and the animalistic nature of giving birth affected my view of nature”, she has stated; “The simultaneous realities I’ve been trying to generate in my work over the past few years, the strata and layering, came about through drawings I made after having children. It opened out a new way for me to create space and movement.”
Stare III made its debut in the critically acclaimed exhibition Jenny Saville: Oxyrhynchus at Gagosian Gallery, London, in 2014. The show’s title alludes to the important archaeological discovery of ancient Egyptian papyrus texts near the city of Oxyrhynchus. As intuited by art critic Ben Luke, this show set up an “archaeological metaphor” centred on the artist’s mode of building, layering and excavating paint to create her images (B. Luke, ‘Jenny Saville: Oxyrynchus, Gagosian - exhibition review’, London Evening Standard, 13 June 2014, online). In its execution, Stare III is indeed palimpsest-like: a painting composed from layer-upon-layer of image and paint, that simultaneously excavates a host of art historical influences.
Stare III distills Saville’s great deference to painters of the past. In this work, the subject’s nose bears a striking resemblance to the bulbous rendering of Rembrandt’s own in many of the self-portraits painted intermittently throughout his life. Indeed, Saville has often recounted the impact of Rembrandt’s genius on her own practice, specifically that of Self-Portrait with Two Circles (circa 1665) – a painting she views as formative for her understanding of the painterly process: “I’ve learnt how to paint a nose from this picture”, she explains, “how to do reflected light, the use of impasto, the use of contradiction within pictures, of having very limited movement of brushmark-making with lots of brushmark-making, how that creates a kind of poetic in paint” (J. Saville filmed in conversation in: ‘Visions of the Self: Jenny Saville on Rembrandt’, Gagosian Quarterly, 15 May 2019, online). Rembrandt’s self-portrait is renowned for its enigmatic background with two large abstract circles, and certainly, the more abstract and geometric components of the present work, from its thickly applied paint and muted palette to its powerfully articulated chiaroscuro, are deeply reminiscent of the Dutch Master's work.
Within the Twentieth Century, the influence of both Francis Bacon and Willem de Kooning is vociferously redolent. One can detect the vivaciously zigzagging, fluid brushstrokes of Willem de Kooning in the present work’s facture; while the raw distortion of the human form as pieced together from photographic source material bespeaks the influence of Bacon. Indeed, where de Kooning’s well-known declaration that “Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented” has often been cited by Saville, the transference of her own likeness onto the anonymous subjects of her paintings is resolutely Baconian in effect (W. de Kooning cited in: op. cit., p. 8). This lingering sense of self is indeed apparent in Stare III; though ostensibly depicting a young boy, this painting nonetheless shares a compelling affinity to her Self-Portrait (after Rembrandt) of 2019. In this painting, the eyes and mouth have been rendered with a striking verisimilitude that is analogous in intensity to the features of the present work.
Saville’s vast canvases often start out as entirely abstract paintings: after throwing, spreading and smearing paint onto canvas she rapidly begins to mould and sculpt her compositions into figurative form. Her role becomes analogous, in this sense, to that of a plastic surgeon, who similarly sculpts flesh for a living. Indeed, amongst the copious source imagery filling her studio space are photographs of reconstructive, cosmetic, and gender reassignment procedures. The fleshy, almost sneering lip and open-mouthed gape of Stare III draws a parallel here with close-up medical illustrations of mouths found strewn across the artist's Oxford studio in 2011. Herein, Saville has long been fascinated by invasive surgeries, and her practice incessantly explores contemporary society’s obsession with body image. Capacious and corpulent, even verging at times on violent and frenzied, her paintings challenge accepted societal norms of corporeality, modes of representation and image consumption.
Captivated by the comparable characteristics of paint and skin, Saville seeks in her portraits to explore and exploit the tactile and visceral qualities of both her medium and subject matter. To once again invoke the “archaeological metaphor” apparent from the Oxyrhynchus show, she achieves this through her meticulous process of layering. Drawing a connection between the slow build-up of paint on a canvas, and the multilayers of identity that we construct, develop, inherit, absorb and perform over a lifetime, she writes: “I want there to be an awareness of wearing this paint body, the artifice of it – a mixture of reality and fiction. I admire the way that Cindy Sherman, in the film stills, wears these myths of femininity. You believe them but also know that it is a fictional world that she’s created” (J. Saville in conversation with M. Gayford in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville: Territories, 1999, p. 30). Saville’s work is fundamentally shaped and informed by academic feminist theories which were first developed when the artist won a scholarship in 1991 to study at the University of Cincinnati. It was here, whilst attending studio art classes and courses in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, that Saville was first introduced to the Écriture Féminine group; in particular, the writings of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva writers that resonated deeply with Saville, who later reflected: “This attempt to write the female became a way for me to look. The whole trip opened my eyes to what was possible with my life” (J. Saville cited in: op. cit., p. 364). Compelled by a vital reassessment of identity as fluctuating, continual and evolving, Saville renders accepted modes of gender identification and image consumption as, like the brushstrokes that form her subjects, fluid, shifting and complex.
The passages of brilliant, luminescent light that comprise the present painting speak to the glow of our digital age. “Saville’s light has a glint”, writes Stevens; "It is a fluid but also, paradoxically, sticky light. It adheres to the body. Her color is earthy, but not in the well-kept, sensual way of traditional English painters like William Coldstream. Saville will dot and scatter bits of hue on the surface that could be taken from the contemporary digital world or even, perhaps, from a neon sign” (M. Stevens, Ibid., p. 12). Once again positioning her working practices in dialogue with those of Bacon, Saville famously borrows and fuses a broad range of photographic source material. Cropped and enlarged to a magnificent scale, Stare III flits enigmatically between poignant portrait and monolithic selfie, majestically encapsulating the most noble and profound sentiments of one of the most important artists of the Twenty-First Century.