Jenny Saville at Modern Art Oxford

Modern Art Oxford presents Jenny Saville’s first solo show in a UK public institution, an exhibition that traces Saville’s practice from the early nineties to the present day.

On view in the foyer gallery, Saville’s drawings in charcoal and pastel make for an appropriate and accessible entry point into this show. In two dimensions, the artist takes the viewer on a journey that transcends time: she approaches subjects figuratively, revealing subsequent preoccupations through her idiosyncratic approach to the paper surface. Walking through the gallery, it becomes evident that Saville’s success as an artist extends far beyond the mastery of her chosen media. She is an artist who can create atmospheres, ask questions and expose uncertainties. Saville’s monumental paintings occupy the upper galleries and offer explorations of people that are both intimate and uncomfortable. Through detailed, frank and unapologetic investigations of the human body, dialogues occur between past and present, and are animated by questions of gender, suffering, and ambiguity.

Using charcoal and pastel, Saville’s approach to the paper in Study for Isis and Horus (2011) is dynamic and fluid, though extremely controlled. This piece assumes importance in its composition: our eye moves around the image with a curving trajectory, and then drops down the canvas where it meets a child, falling forward, almost out of the drawing. Is this an emblem of freedom, found in innocence and naivety? Whilst Egypt meets Greece in their ancient histories and appearances, the same central bust oscillates fluently between the roles of mother and protector. In creating an image of the multi-faceted woman, rising to any of these symbols is represented, paradoxically, as a loaded and restrictive task.

By revisiting her drawings and adding subsequent material layers, this process of physical addition lends itself conceptually to the creation of meaning in Saville’s work. These converging processes invite the viewer to read into layers of history, and subsequent theories of representation. Saville’s method of working involves taking imagery from multiple sources, and each component contributes to the holistic presentation of the subject. Interestingly in Bleach (2008), the elements that come together to form what is a recognisable face have come from various sources. Therefore in this evident construct, Saville also hints at the difference between “presentation” and “representation”, of a physical reality and the notional aesthetic.

This poignant construction is complemented by Saville’s focus on the aesthetic, driven by the medium she chooses, and present throughout the exhibition. In the upper galleries, thick, modular paint is applied to the canvas with intensity and offers depth to the subject, morphing from two dimensions into sculptural form.

Atonement Studies: Central Panel (Rosetta) from 2005-6 is a large-scale canvas that sits behind a transparent screen, reflecting the lights in the gallery space as well as the silhouette of the viewer. Increasingly self-aware, the viewer is then invited to contemplate his or her position with regard to the construction of this subject’s identity, particularly because the subject’s apparent blindness conceals her individuality. The visitor’s traditional relationship with the painting is changed, and moves into an active experience, which is likened to that of interacting with sculpture or installation artworks.

Two of Saville’s pieces are also on display at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, which runs concurrently with the exhibition at Modern Art Oxford. In this instance it is enjoyable to experience the conversation between Saville’s Study for Pentimenti III (sinopia), 2011 and Giovanni Battista Moroni’s The Mystic Marriage Of St Catherine, c. 1550. Though appropriate, the display seems a little crude. The visual juxtaposition only highlights what is already evident in Saville’s work, a piece that doesn’t call for its historical counterpart to enliven the subject matter, precisely because it stands so strongly on its own.

Jenny Saville, 23/06/12 until 16/09/12, Modern Art Oxford, 30 Pembroke St, Oxford, OX1 1BP.

Text: Asana Greenstreet

Photography: Geraint Lewis