I n Jenny Saville’s Shadow Head, the viewer is confronted with a deeply intimate portrait rendered on a monumental scale. A central tenet of the artist’s practice, this contradiction imbues the work with a powerful intensity.
Executed in 2007-13, over a decade after the artist first burst onto the contemporary art scene as part of Charles Saatchi’s landmark exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection in 1997, Shadow Head stands as testament to Saville’s unrivalled abilities as a painter. With its mesmeric expanse of swiftly rendered and fluid brushmarks, combined with a remarkable sculptural quality retained from and developed out of her earliest masterpieces including Propped (1992) and Shift (1996-97), the present work situates Saville as one of the most significant figurative painters of our time. Nowhere are the artist’s abilities and rich, pictorial vocabulary more evident than in this highly emotive and psychologically charged portrait.
Shadow Head 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 an ancient Egyptian rubbish dump of papyrus texts near the city of Oxyrhynchus. As suggested 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 (Ben Luke, ‘Jenny Saville: Oxyrynchus, Gagosian - exhibition review’, London Evening Standard, 13 June 2014). Inspired by the findings at Oxyrhynchus, Shadow Head suggests a kind of palimpsest of the past through an unearthing and layering of temporality and paint, whilst its title evokes the past’s inevitable weight and the shadow it casts over contemporary painting. Indeed, Saville’s portrait seems to arise out of a grey, shadowy haze of gestural brushstrokes at the base of the canvas, which coalesce and metamorphose from thick swirls of paint into a poignant rendering of a head, a face, a gaze.
Through her visceral practice of vigorously layered paint, Saville contends with the magnitude of art history as a force that is at once inspirational and overbearing. Both self-consciously and subconsciously, her art draws heavily on the great masters of the past, most notably Rembrandt and Titian, whilst engaging with one of the most eminent painters of the Twentieth Century, Francis Bacon. Renowned for his raw and emotionally charged paintings, executed with sweeping, gestural bands of impasto paint, Bacon often transposed his own likeness onto his portraits of other people, much like Saville herself.
If the opaque and hazy shadows in Shadow Head are emblematic of the ubiquity of the past, then the passages of brilliant, luminescent light speak to the digital glow of the technological age. “Saville’s light has a glint”, writes Mark 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” (Mark Stevens, Jenny Saville).
Once again positioning her working practices in dialogue with those of Bacon, Saville famously paints from photographic source material as opposed to directly from life. In a world dominated and saturated by photographic and digital reproduction, her technique marks her work as distinctly contemporary and conceptually engaged. Cropped and enlarged to a magnificent scale, Shadow Head 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.