JENNYSAVILLE, SARA BARKER,CHRISTINE BORLAND, ROBIN RHODE, MARKUS SCHINWALD and CATHERINE STREET.
March until 16 September 2018
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One), Edinburgh.
It’s hard to believe that the latest instalment of NOW, part of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s contemporary art programme, is the first major showing of Jenny Saville’s work in Scotland and only her third exhibition in a UK museum. It seems that for many of our finest artists, international acclaim is a pre-requisite for national acknowledgement. The Scottish National Gallery’s newly acquired Study for Branded (1992, Oil on paper, 100.3 x 74.4 cm) is amazingly the only example of Saville’s work currently in a UK public collection, made possible by the Henry and Sula Walton Fund. Whilst the curatorial aim of the three year NOW exhibition programme is very much about placing contemporary Scottish Art in an international context, it also illuminates the national context of how we regard art and artists in the 21st century.
The purchase of multiple works from Saville’s Glasgow School of Art graduating show by collector Charles Saatchi, her participation in the Saatchi Gallery’s Young British Artists III exhibition (1994) and the Royal Academy’s exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists (1997), effectively launched Saville’s career in terms currency on the international art market. However, that’s not what gives her work its immense power, universality, or ultimate value. As five rooms of her work spanning 26 years powerfully testify, she achieves that integrity entirely on her own terms. The scale of this artist’s emotional intelligence, discipline and command of painting is truly extraordinary, crossing multiple boundaries in how we perceive the female body, art and humanity.
In the history of Western Art and the Scottish figurative tradition Saville’s work radically transforms perception of the female nude with its unflinching honesty. Presenting completely “un-idealised”, “uncompromising” images of the human body, Saville confronts us with the timeless and sometimes overwhelming truth of human vulnerability. It’s a truth which ideal Beauty has cloaked for centuries, then effectively obliterated in popular culture of the 21st Century. At base we are all flesh, magnified in Saville’s adept handling of oils, pastel and charcoal, with all the discomfort and fragility which attends mortality.
Propped (1992, Oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm. To be shown with mirror opposite) looks the male dominated figurative tradition in Art, society and within the Glasgow School of Art right in the eye. Perched atop a stool, a naked female figure with huge, foreshortened thighs and knees closest to the viewer, gazes down, sizing us up with a sneer, her raw hands clawed in tension. The model’s white shoed feet are crossed over, anchoring her frame to the thrust and elevation of the artist’s vision. What should feel precarious isn’t, she commands the composition and across it, written backwards, read in the mirror opposite as part of the painting, are the words of French Feminist writer Luce Irigaray;
“If we continue to speak in this sameness- speak as men have spoken for centuries, we fail each other Again words will pass through our bodies, above our heads- disappear, make us disappear…”
Wedged between the painting and mirrored confrontation, the immense physicality of this disappearance becomes present in the room as idea and experience, written on one’s own body in everyday life. It is only in looking by default at ourselves that the words become visible. Behind this mirror, at the entrance to this first room, is Trace (1993 – 1994, Oil on canvas, 213.4 x 182.9 cm. Collection of Larry Gagosian), a sobering acknowledgement from neck to buttocks, viewed from behind. Although the palms are flat they feel psychologically twisted, facing the viewer like those of a prisoner in a lineup. The exposure of pale skin, nuanced with greys, ochre, blue, umber and crimson, is painfully incised with the marks of underwear, imprinted on the skin. The cool, serene flesh-toned palette fills the canvas and the mind like a question. We’re faced with where we stand in this branding, then we step behind the painting to the Propped mirror and see. The way the exhibition is hung, cleverly places the viewer in direct relation to the work in this room. The space between Propped and the self-reflexive surface of the mirror is relatively neat, so you can’t stand back to distance yourself from either. Initially the human figure, expression and attitude, led by Saville’s paint handling draws you in, then you turn a perceptive corner and come face to face with the mirror, your own body and yourself. It’s a powerful mechanism of interrogation that perceptively creeps up on you before you know it, like all great art should.
Witness (2009, Oil on canvas, 270 × 219.4 × 6.4 cm. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, USA) places a magnified young face, with the mouth exploded in a vertical position, so that the viewer becomes witness. Saville commented: “It was tough going to push beyond the surface horror into the paint.” Unlike a crime scene/ forensic photograph of documentation, the statement here is a document of the human mark in deep cadmium, alizarin and burnt umber, the stark, peachy pale skin magnifying vulnerability. Saville goes beyond gore into the nature of flesh made human. Even in this context, she fills the viewer with wonder in every mark, as bodies disappear and emerge in relative abstraction. Muse (2012 – 2014, Charcoal on canvas. Unframed: 212 x 170.4 x 3.2cm, Private collection) is a particularly beautiful example, where the deconstruction of form and idea reconstructs the self with force, passion and determination. You gain a sense of Saville’s artistic discipline, intense curiosity and driven process in this show and it’s awe inspiring! Crucially, unlike at lot of other YBAs, her approach to her subject transcends the marketable artist/ celebrity persona- her work is simply about bigger stuff in action and vision. She is resoundingly her own muse in a way that truly inspires.
When painting on the monumental scale of Fulcrum (1998 – 1999, Oil on canvas, 261.6 x 487.7 cm. Collection of Larry Gagosian) there is no option other than to use your whole self to make the marks, like the honed work of a dancer. The physicality lies not just in the three ample female figures, wound together but in the act of painting. The superb handling of this expansive palette of flesh, sliced vertically with fragments of crimson, as if the surface of the canvas were itself flesh and blood, is startlingly real. It is also deeply meditative, with each model held in their own unique world of expression. The fulcrum in this work, the movement used to move or raise something, is the artist’s whole self and contemplation of what it is to be human. How else do we enact change but creatively, imaginatively- as individuals and as a species?
One of my favourite images in the exhibition is One out of two (symposium) (2016, Charcoal and pastel on canvas, 152 x 225 x 3.2cm), a wonderfully ambiguous act of erasure and visibility. As a fluid, layered drawing the alizarin crimson graffiti-like marks, merge with the tracery of a forensic outline and the deconstructed works of old masters. The feminine in this work lies in the grace and repose of head and shoulders, the still core of facial expression, sculpted in chiaroscuro and the sensuous movement, hands clasped around backs that surrounds and absorbs the subject and viewer. Although Saville is often mentioned in the same breath as Bacon and Freud- the stated connection simply being fleshiness, there is a powerful philosophical dialogue that resides in her work, in this painting drawn from Plato’s Symposium, consistent with an ancient tradition of essential thought and debate. Although Saville treats paint as “liquid flesh” the undeniable “viscosity”, the internal tension or friction of the material, isn’t merely physical, but intellectual, psychological and emotional. To be a conscious human being, you can’t not experience internal viscosity being mind and flesh, even more so when the politics of gender or aesthetics of Beauty are applied to the body. Saville’s approach to the female body, unlike so many male artists and critics, isn’t just about masses of flesh. Saville is more holistic and therefore even more confrontational in the context of our 21st century globalised worship of appearance. To write about her work in terms of one dimensional physicality is to miss the point entirely, because to do so, as the artist suggests in “Propped” is to make ourselves disappear.
Taking Art History by the throat and shaking it is Saville’s Olympia (2013 – 2014, Charcoal and oil on canvas, 217 x 290 cm). The artist is too visually literate for this painting not to bear a link with Manet’s much celebrated reclining nude of the same title; a prostitute attended by a black servant bearing flowers- presumably from a client, with an arched backed black cat at her feet. When it was first shown in 1865 the confrontational stare of the female protagonist, provocatively commanding the composition, was considered shocking. The nude, though arranged for a male gaze, becomes self-possessed in this work and that sense becomes highly evolved in Saville’s coupling of black and white flesh, with fragments of cityscape in the background. The female figure in this work is absorbed in her own thoughts, whilst her lover’s embrace (which could be male or female, depending on audience projection) forms part of a whole series of question marks. Despite the sensuous energy of form and mark, these aren’t bodies served up for salacious gratification. Saville’s middle-aged Olympia is mindfully present and beautiful, in the same manner as the artist’s symposium paintings, here with a downturned mouth suggestive of thought rather than naked pleasure, passion or possession. Multiple realities are actively embraced by the artist and possession on all levels resisted, turning the entire history of Western Art effectively on its head and prompting a broad smile on my face as I exited this final room. What I love so much about Saville’s work is the intense care, exploration, intellect, discipline and ambition required to create it, what it gives to the viewer and to the world. Saville is more of a trailblazer than she has yet been acknowledged for and I hope that this show will begin to address that publicly. NOW could not be more vital or timely in that respect.
Whilst Saville’s work is the centrepiece of the NOW exhibition 2018, works by Markus Schinwald, Christine Borland and adjacent work from the National Galleries of Scotland collection, including photography by Francesca Woodman (1958-1981), also provided great stimulus for thought.
Austrian artist Markus Schinwald’s fascinating two screen video work Orient (2011, Looped, two channel HD video 09:00 min. each, colour, sound) reminded me of Pina Bausch’s choreography with its everyday immediacy, potently considered gestures and emotional punch. It is the first time that this work, originally created for the Austrian Pavillion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, has been shown in Scotland. Set in the monumental ruins of an industrial space, the doubled intersection of images, movement and bodily gestures, together with two different voiceovers create a free associative experience for the viewer/ participant. The relationships between a group of well-dressed men and women, moving in unison, individually or paired in observance of each other are, completely compelling as performance, accented with slapstick humour and irony. There are also moments of pure poetry written with the body; tap dancing feet in a sea of colourful, discarded circuitry wires, a man awkwardly scaling a door of opaque glass with a young woman walking straight through it a subversive moment later or a man with his leg caught between two giant structures of concrete trying to wrestle himself free. How we orient ourselves in time, space and in relation to each other is part of the eternal loop and I loved the way that each time I watched Schinwald’s split screens, new combinations of sound and image stimulated different streams of association. The way the artist splits and reassembles the collective psychology of being human provoked my curiosity and I was thoroughly taken by the mindful calculation and seeming randomness of this work.
Christine Borland’s Positive Pattern (2016. Foam, Perspex, MDF, paint. No2 edition of 3), five abstract objects modelled on the spaces within Barabara Hepworth sculptures were created using 3D scanning and CNC router technology. The intriguing combination of Science and Art, originally commissioned by the Institute of Transplantation, Newcastle to honour organ donors and their families, is aligned with the viewer’s own body and internal organs according to plinth height. Because I have a reviewing policy of not reading any explanatory labelling/ text before looking at visual work, what struck me initially was the ambiguity of material. Housed in Perspex boxes it had the solidity of carved limestone, but the texture was too fine, implying a more delicate substance. The forms themselves were beautiful, hovering in an imaginative space between the organic and human-made, like macquettes in a stage of becoming. The presentation and grouping of objects felt clinical, collectively poised, flowing in energy yet isolated at various levels and confined in their cases.
The problem I often find in appreciating Borland’s work, is that reading an adjacent exploratory text is made necessary by the maker. The human element in Borland’s art is predominantly the linking of ideas, rather than empathy and it tends to leave me cold, even though I find the work interesting and aesthetically beautiful in its stylistic cleanliness. The beauty here really lies in the cavity of Hepworth’s head, her humane approach and thinking as a sculptor, appropriated by Borland. This isn’t a criticism, more an observation of the skilful way Borland handles commissions, successfully negotiating the worlds of contemporary art and medicine. The specificity of commissioned / public works of art is such that she doesn’t always transcend that directive when work is shown out with its original context. My feeling is that Borland’s real talent is alignment of ideas rather than making art. Although this creates a Positive Pattern overall, it lacks soul. Visually there’s a glimmer of feeling, which if you’re keen you pursue, but the primary conduit of meaning is often written context which goes with the territory, rather than extending or exploding it- in the artist’s practice and in terms of viewer perception. Whist Borland’s cleverness can be impressive, it isn’t enduring when placed in the same exhibition as an artist like Saville.
Also included in the exhibition are four painted metal sculptures and wall-based works by Sara Barker, influenced by writers Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing and Jeanette Winterson. Barker combines drawing, painting, sculpture and collage rather self-consciously to “investigate the act of making”. The compartmentalisation and dreamy palette of the artist’s triptych, 3 fabric figures on the Heath changes the sky (2017, automotive paint, folded aluminium, stainless steel rod, perspex, 180 x 240 x 28 cm) is a bit too obvious in making the viewer aware of facets of seeing, with a painterly nod to the Bloomsbury group. Again, interesting ideas are in play in this work; “figuration, edges and borders of our bodies, experience and landscapes creating portals that open up a space for reflective thought” but they are essentially derivative, I don’t get a sense of Barker’s stance towards these concepts or the nature of her investigation other than quotation. It’s illustrative understanding of ideas compared to the depth of understanding of the human condition absorbed, experienced and communicated by Saville. Robin Rhodes’ homage to Muybridge had a similar impact on me and Catherine Street’s work felt underdeveloped in its exploration and execution. Admittedly when you have such a strong backbone to a show it’s hard to equal it, conversely a great show will display equal artistic muscle despite exhibiting diverse bodies of work. Saville’s new work Aleppo for example, currently on display between two Titian’s at the Scottish National Gallery on The Mound, stands up all by itself in juxtaposition. Here is NOW you might say.
I would urge anyone with an interest in humanity to visit this exhibition. You’re unlikely to see all 17 Saville works, drawn from private and public collections across the globe, altogether elsewhere. The paint handling and scale are incredible, in ways that don’t translate in reproduction and the artist’s insight is truly profound. However, if you can’t make it to Edinburgh and live further South, Saville’s work can also be seen as part of the All Too Human show at Tate Britain until 27th August 2018, in the company of 20 figurative artists including Francis Bacon, Paula Rego, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossof, Euan Uglow, Walter Sickert and David Bomberg. A great accompaniment to both shows is the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art broadcast interview with Saville as part of the NOW exhibition (link below). Hearing the artist speak about her work is as much of a privilege as seeing it, a rare quality both sides of the equation for a branded YBA! Figurative art and the discipline of painting are far from being dead.
Jenny Saville in conversation. National Gallery of Scotland Streamed live on 23 Mar 2018 You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2NQZ5ggYJQ