Willem de Kooning cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville, 2018, p. 8.
“The heightened scale of many of [Saville’s] paintings keeps them from becoming distant; they are not to be contemplated like a view out a window or a discrete rectangle on a flat wall. Their scale implies a larger and more three-dimensional space, one that is enfolding, and the physical touch of the brush and the presence of the flesh… becomes so intense that it arouses the other senses (the technical term is synaesthesia) so that… her work creates sensations of warmth, flickering lights, internal rumblings, even a pungent and indescribable smell, like the fume of the cave.”
Mark Stevens, ‘Flesh was the Reason Oil Painting was Invented’ in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville, 2018, p. 7.
In Jenny Saville’s Shadow Head, the viewer is confronted with a deeply intimate portrait rendered on a profoundly monumental scale. A central tenet of the artist’s practice, this pictorial contradiction imbues the work with a powerful intensity, almost overwhelming in its potency. 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 painterly abilities. 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. Simultaneously beautiful yet almost violent in its execution, stoic yet fragile, the work shifts compellingly from loose and brazen brushstrokes, to nuanced and scrupulously applied paintwork, offering a deeply evocative and poetic contemplation of the human condition. Nowhere are the artist’s painterly abilities and rich, pictorial vocabulary more evident than in this highly emotive and psychologically charged portrait of Saville’s anonymous sitter.
The genesis of the present work dates back several years to a charcoal and oil on paper study that Saville first began working on in 2007. Suggestive of a kind of personal excavation, Study for Shadow Head (2007-14) offers a raw and immediate glimpse into the artist’s mature style of painting. 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 have profoundly impacted her artistic 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” (Jenny Saville in conversation with Sally Mann in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville, 2018, p. 30). Composed from slowly-layered, tactile swathes of paint, Shadow Head is indeed imbued with a vital and kinetic dynamism. Hovering elusively between figuration and abstraction, the paintwork of the portrait threatens to dissipate and unfurl. As broad, haphazard brushstrokes dissolve from a cheekbone into biomorphic shapes, an eyebrow into an impasto smear, the work is rendered as both self-consciously painterly and powerfully humanistic.
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 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 (Ben Luke, ‘Jenny Saville: Oxyrynchus, Gagosian - exhibition review’, London Evening Standard, 13 June 2014, online). 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.
With her mouth slightly ajar, Saville’s subject gazes down at the viewer. Painted with an almost unnerving photographic reality within a tumult of expressive and muscular painterly marks, her eyes are the magnetic epicentre of the composition. Emerging from the surrounding layers of swirling paint, they appear electric yet slightly glazed over, as if caught in the liminal realm between outward and inward contemplation. In this sense of push and pull, back and forth, past and present, the subject’s gaze becomes a metaphor for one of Saville’s greatest interests: the vast impact of art history on contemporary painting. 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. This lingering sense of self is similarly evoked in Saville’s portraiture, and indeed Shadow Head shares a compelling affinity to her latest Self-Portrait (after Rembrandt), 2019, recently exhibited at Gagosian Gallery, London. Juxtaposed against the rich physicality of the paint, the eyes and mouth of this self-portrait have been rendered with a striking verisimilitude that is analogous in intensity to the features of the present work. Fluctuating between radiant tactility and unfettered abstraction, Shadow Head hence redolently foreshadows Saville’s Untitled and underscores the way in which the artist’s presence and likeness haunts the entirety of her painterly opus.
The spectral trajectory of art history, as emblematised in Saville’s evocative brushwork, can be traced within the fabric of Shadow Head, and one can make out the vivaciously zigzagging, fluid brushstrokes of Willem de Kooning at the right of the composition. Indeed, de Kooning’s well-known declaration that “Flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented” springs immediately to mind, and is a phrase oft-cited by the artist herself (Willem de Kooning cited in: op. cit., p. 8). Looking further back into art history, the subject’s nose bears a striking resemblance to the bulbous rendering of Rembrandt’s own nose in his Self-Portrait with Two Circles (circa 1665). On permanent view to the public in Kenwood House, London, and more recently exhibited alongside Saville’s aforementioned self-portrait at Gagosian, London, this is a work which Saville knows well and has professed as intrinsically formative to 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” (Jenny 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 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 painting.
Saville’s vast canvases often start out as entirely abstract paintings: throwing, spreading and smearing paint onto the surface, she subsequently begins to mould and sculpt her compositions into meaty, fleshy, figurative forms. 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. 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 societal notions of beauty and femininity. Born in Cambridge in the UK in 1970, Saville came of age in the ’80s at a time when body regulation and the diet industry were on the rise. Developed out of an era where women were fed the message that skinny was synonymous with beautiful – that smaller, thinner and lesser equalled better – Saville’s artistic output was greatly influenced by this strain of contemporary culture. As if in search for an antidote, her colossal paintings refuse to be contained or confined. With their rich, thickly painted overspill of fleshy, female corporeality, they are driven by an almost overwhelming intensity of force. Steeped in our image-saturated, sensationalised, photoshopped world, Saville’s paintings contend with a distinctly contemporary climate of information-overload-selfie-culture mayhem. As art critic Mark Stevens notes, “The many pressures placed upon the body today infuse and crisscross her work, making it part of our contemporary world rather than a nostalgic escape. But she also provides us with something restorative – a recovery of the first sense, which is touch” (Mark Stevens, ‘Flesh was the Reason Oil Painting was Invented’ in: op. cit., p. 7).
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” (Jenny Saville in conversation with Martin 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 deeply resonated 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” (Jenny Saville cited in: op. cit., p. 364). Compelled by a vital reassessment of identity as fluctuating, continual and evolving, Saville renders femininity, like her brushstrokes themselves, as fluid, shifting and complex.
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 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, ibid., p. 12). 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.
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