Thursday, 20 September 2007



(First published 21st February 2007)

Saville does not have a current or recent show on which to base this post. Her last show at Gagosian NY was in 2003 and there interestingly, she diversified her signature subject, the obese female nude, with mixed results. This post is prompted by the material available on the web anyway, the shift in her themes and other aspects to the work.

Saville’s work is usually seen as a strident critique of the traditional female nude, often contrasted with the work of Lucien Freud although Phillip Pearlstein or Joan Semmel might serve just as well. While she shares with Freud an interest in the more extreme specimens of body shape and looks up on her subjects in marked counterpoint to the way Freud looks down, her imposing scale, claustrophobic framing of the figure, dogged, outsize facture and bright, vacant backgrounds suggest other, equalling useful comparisons.

Saville’s work arises in the early 90s, at a time when a number of female artists depict women with a child or doll-like persona, from Kim Dingle to Lisa Yuskavage, Rita Ackermann to Nicky Hoberman. Little girls are treated as stylised versions of women or vice versa, pictures tend to easel-size, in smooth, playful styles. The trend also owes something to Anime cartoons, the wide-eyed sprite moving blithely through the world, is reflected in the work of Mariko Mori and others.

Against this, Saville’s work denies more social or engaged roles, retreats from more demure and chic painting. It offers a ‘personal space’ portrait, the person stripped of the world – in a vacuum really -- and what can be made of the naked self there is distressingly, never enough. In works such as Plan (1993) the woman virtually smothers the picture plane, in Hyphen (1999) the faces are caked in paint as highlight, as if cosmetic, while in pictures such as Hem (1999) closed eyes, limp limbs, sundry scars and mutilations extort a calculated pathos. Nude and painting strain for embrace, embody and express the bloated self-indulgence and indolence that follow massive insecurity and withdrawal in vicious cycle. It is a portrait of how much can be made of oneself with only oneself.

Saville thus provides a devastating flipside to the perky waifs and pro-active roles that enjoy favour elsewhere. It is not just the nude that is her target, but the nude situated anywhere that might rival our attention to her, require a response from her. It is the nude that we can never get close enough to, the nude that can never quite fill the gap. Saville’s photographs, (in collaboration with Glen Luchford), stress just this kind of pictorial convergence upon the viewer. Sexuality is understandably defused, since it is an invitation to union and Saville’s nudes are about just that threat; maintaining the frailest of identities, being big enough all by herself. And the bigger nude and picture become the more uncertain painting and facture. Saville is not interested in smooth, careful tonalities anymore than seductive pose or setting - these take on a rather clinical air, as does drawing. But on her super-sized scale, brushstrokes cannot function as they do in a Freud or Uglow. Strokes or palette knife loadings are often not large enough to identify planes or contours; seem inadequate or indifferent. The result is a halting, lavish facture, of a piece with the mood of inflation and recalcitrance.

The pictures are uncomfortable not so much for what they do to the nude and painting, but for what they do to obesity. For it is obesity as a measure of the person stripped of all else. It is Saville’s singular achievement to have devised a picture that captures this sad state. Subsequent work extends it with transsexuals as in Matrix (1999) or Passage 2002-3) further neutralising sexuality, with the animal carcass as surrogate body, as in Host (2002-3) or Suspension (2003-4) a common metaphor for alienation shared by Bacon, Soutine and Rembrandt, and beaten faces, such as Reverse (2002-3) or Aperture (2002) where a male, significantly, also appears decapitated. Each amplifies the aggression and pathos, but now avoids obesity.

Yet obesity throughout the population is a growing concern among many western countries, is rapidly becoming a symptom of our times and culture. Saville’s obese figures could stand for a lot more than neurosis, might usefully be extended in costume and setting to many roles, function as a symbol for broader issues. Then again, with her recourse to more traditional symbols like the flayed carcass or severed male head, it may be that Saville prefers to retreat further, inscribing them with her ‘delicious’ ease and sly contempt.

POSTSCRIPT (25 – 4 – 07)

An interesting example not considered in the above post has recently been pointed out. The picture is like others by the artist that combines the figure with other angles or poses (of same figure), but maintains a vacuous setting, allows figure to monopolise the picture plane and frame. But here Saville packs the picture with a variety of adult female body shapes, does not concentrate on obesity, but diversity. Significantly, faces are mostly excluded, apart from the closest and heaviest models to the left (if the picture is rotated anti-clockwise, a more obvious perspective can be discerned across the figures).

While this picture includes other figures, it is also notable that they do not face or acknowledge one another, relate on only the most formal, perhaps embarrassing terms. There is a sense of coercion rather than cohesion about their assembly. The figures thus present a kind of collective withdrawal, a sample of the adult female similarly isolated, as in the above examples, not one against any now, but more particularly and tellingly, adult female against non-adult and non-female. The threat, while less sweeping, is hardly less crippling. The picture while more crowded; is hardly more sociable.

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