2:57pm Wednesday 4th July 2012
By Theresa Thompson
It’s been quite a year for flesh. Lucien Freud in London to begin with, heroic nudes over at Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford in time for the Olympics, and now at Modern Art Oxford (MAO) British painter Jenny Saville, who is most known for her monumental oil paintings of fleshy female figures, in her first solo exhibition in a UK public gallery. At first thought it seems amazing that an artist of Saville’s standing has her first major British solo show only now and in our city. Very lucky for us of course; this is a triumph for MAO — and certainly one of the most powerful shows I’ve seen in a while. Now aged 42 and a Royal Academician since 2007, Saville rose to prominence in the mid-1990s as one of the YBAs, the Young British Artists who wowed the art scene from the late-1980s on — Tracey Emin’s unmade bed and Damien Hirst’s pickled shark prominent among them.
Like many, she was helped by Charles Saatchi. Having caught his eye at the Glasgow School of Art where she studied, she was promptly offered an exhibition at his London gallery in 1994, and she was in the iconic Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997. Then, thinking it over, it took until last year for Tracey Emin to have her first retrospective (at the Hayward), and this year for the first sizeable survey of Hirst’s work (at Tate Modern), and Gillian Wearing’s has just ended at Whitechapel.
Saville now lives in Oxford, working from a studio round the corner from Modern Art Oxford (MAO). The MAO show traces her practice from the early nineties to the present day and includes two works made specially for it. The show is split between earlier paintings in the Upper Galleries — from mammoth Ruben-esque nudes filling the canvas, and massive and at times disconcerting heads, to a floor-to-ceiling Soutine-esque beef carcass — and more recent drawings in the Foyer Gallery. These multi-layered works on paper are fascinating and elegant, still large in size, and include studies for, for example, Stare (two versions of Red Stare Head are upstairs), and studies on the universal theme of mother and child.
A further two of her new ‘reproduction’ drawings are concurrently shown at the Ashmolean Museum. They have an astonishing impact in the Italian Renaissance Gallery alongside works by masters such as Titian and Michelangelo. Art students are already colonising the space around them, sketching.
The intense layering in these works draws the viewer in, and the art historical references she increasingly makes create dialogues across the gallery. The wriggling babies in Nativity scenes come to life alongside her lively, highly personal reinterpretations.
Particularly lucid is her charcoal drawing inspired by The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist (The Burlington House Cartoon) by Leonardo da Vinci.
And at MAO I was captivated by Mirror (2011-12) with its multiple references.
She uses lots of paint. Huge canvases and thickly applied paint lead to dramatic results.
Now Saville has turned to drawing to explore the physical layering of images and the conceptual layering of time. It is an extremely positive move.
After the provocative and unflinchingly visceral earlier paintings, I loved the dynamism, delicacy and depths of these works: the calm after the storm.
At MAO and the Ashmolean Museum until September. Free admission.
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