Fleshy Female Figures
Jenny Saville, digital photography, and the tension between figuration and abstraction
If there’s one show I wish I had seen last year it’s Jenny Saville’s exhibition of new work at Gagosian in Paris. The show was called Latent and brought together paintings which for her raise questions about what is hidden or concealed from us.
Saville is one of Britain’s leading contemporary painters and is probably best known for her large-scale oil paintings of palpably fleshy female figures. Back in the 1990s she was associated with the group of artists known as the YBAs, and her early work was championed by the collector Charles Saatchi. If you’re not familiar with Saville’s work and need some introduction, she discusses her influences and the ideas that inform her work in this great podcast interview in 2020.
One of the things I find interesting about Saville’s work is that she straddles figuration and abstraction. She paints what we recognise as the human body, but she starts from the abstract and builds out from that. She describes it in terms of ‘laying down a problem’, destroying and rebuilding, until something that doesn’t at first make sense starts to make sense. For her there’s a fight in that process of creation, a tension between the abstract and the figurative. Saville describes her work as an investigation into what reality is, and her paintings reveal the journey of problem-solving that she undertakes in each artwork.
This week I watched a short video in which Saville talks about that body of work she made for the Paris show last year. I wanted to share it with you because for me it brings together a few ideas that I’ve talked about in recent weeks - about abstraction, the professionalism of artists, Artificial Intelligence, and the way in which artists assimilate new technologies in their work. If ever there was an artist who demonstrates a commitment to professionalism in the knowledge and study of art from the past, the daily discipline of studio time, and the intellectual problem-solving approach she brings to creating, it’s Jenny Saville. She’s curious about everything, she hoovers up imagery and marks from all sorts of places, and she feels excited rather than threatened by the potential of AI image-making.
I’d love to know what you think about Saville’s work and the ideas she talks about in this video.
I was interested in what she said about teeth not featuring in paintings before the technology of photography enabled artists to observe closely the way the light catches teeth. That's something if that's true.
I’ve listened to that A Brush With podcast at least twice. Ok, three times.