The Jenny Saville Question

Jonathon Jones in the Guardian rather than offering his criticism of Jenny Saville’s work leaves it up to his readers.

I found none of the comments that illuminating except for the BeaverBloke, who was doing a lot of thinking about it.

Saville is doing academic pastiche work. The drawing along witht he article is a standard well-done academic study that anyone attending an atelier could accomplish with a years study easily. It’s reminiscent of something by Alfred Leslie or any number of other American artists who draw academically:

The 2011 drawing by Saville is showing that she’s simply compensating for her inability to draw with conviction that characterized her early work. Her paintings have nothing much in common with artists like Freud or Bacon. Compared to Freud, Saville doesn’t understand how to keep her color planes organized so that she keeps putting the wrong values in various places arbitrarily. Freud’s drawing and form are linked. Saville’s aren’t. Her drawing is done before hand and doesn’t come out of the paint. And the drawing is almost completely uninteresting, which isn’t the case with Freud because Freud’s drawing comes from minute observations of his subjects and analysis of small forms within the face or figure which leads to a convincingly real projection into space. Saville keep destroying the spatial illusion, as I said, because the color values are wrong and don’t define planes properly. She tries to disguise this by making collage like effects. But this is again completely arbitrary. There’s no organizational structure and nothing in her head that she’s after. That’s why, I believe, she’s now switched to making academic studies so she can at least get a grip on how the human body is designed.

It’s not remotely close to Bacon because Bacon has looked closely at painters like Rembrandt and Velazquez and achieves convincing spatial projection by playing heavily impastoed paint off against paint thinned and soaked into raw linen. He’s working close to the level of Soutine, who BeaverBloke accurately mentions as one of the great figure painters of the last century and who Saville isn’t just miles away from, she’s never going to get there given how comprised her vision already in trying to play art star. Bacon tried to play it too, only he’d had a lot of struggle and preparation before the pressure was on. Self-consciousness at the grad school stage is a recipe for disaster. And what I see in Saville’s work is disaster.

The work is reasonably accomplished and there’s nothing wrong with it, other than the fact that it tries to be attention getting by implying smashed flesh and blood. The Bacon-esque reference makes it extremely trite. It’s pure mannerism. Painting about painting. Self-conscious and directed toward shocking an audience but there’s nothing remotely shocking about it because it’s completely mannerist. It’s shocking in the sense of Emin’s tampax or Koons jism. Meant to get attention.

It’s faux-radicalism. Play acting. Who is impressed presumably are young artists who want to be rich and famous and people who haven’t the foggiest notion of the history of painting. John Singer Sargent, for example, makes Jenny Saville, or Alfred Leslie’s, painfully obvious facility look forced and mannered. Sargent’s mannered way of painting is  virtuoso. But nobody looks at Sargent in contemporary art so unbelievably talentless painters like Eric Fischl built major careers by throwing paint around in any way they chose, barely able to even get a figure described half-convincingly and they’re the new Sargents. As long as a adolescent boy masturbating in a pool or an adolescent boy staring at a MILF’s open crotch was the subject matter Fischl was golden. Painting at its most shallow. The painting handling in the early Fischl’s is atrocious. It’s painful to even look at those blinds and the haphazard and lazy paintstrokes across the various forms. Compared to Hopper this looks like pure idiocy but critics keep throwing around John Singer Sargent. By 1999 Ken Johnson in the NY Times is referring to the buttery brush strokes and Caravaggesque contrasts.    Spare us.

This is as dismal a time in painting history as one can imagine, when work of such obvious mediocrity is driving to dizzying heights of critical attention and oceans of cash. And of course the cash is what drives the critical attention.

This early work by Saville is frankly terrible, and this is what presumably has led to her notoriety. This is what we can contrast to Bacon and Freud. The “expressionist” Bacon bits (pun to keep everyone awake) are completely contrived because they’re forced to hold to the form and any energy they might actually possess is truncated and cutesy. Then, even more cutesy we get a little bit of paint spattering. This is a parody of Bacon. Bacon was using chance in how the violence of his attack opened up the form so that he would have to react instantaneously to it. The painting could be won or lost at any time. Saville’s head is going nowhere. It can’t be moved around or invented. She doesn’t want any paint to get on the eyes, for example. She paints them carefully in the manner any half-way competent sign painter would.

Moving to Freud, the planes have so little connection to any kind of clear spatial construction–look at Cezanne or Uglow or any competent painter for that matter and one sees that the Saville is an arbitrary and senseless mess.

This is art school painting at its height. Mannered, trying for attention by making a Bacon pastiche that is unrelated to life.

It’s pure mannerism. I don’t see her ever going anywhere except to better technical craft skill, which has nothing to do with making paintings or art. Chuck Close is mentioned in the Jones piece. Close is the Frankenstein monster of mannerist painting–soulless and technique/concept driven.

What Saville’s painting reminds me of–although it’s not as  bad– is Leroy Nieman. But it strikes me as essentially the same. She’s using a kind of pseudo “expressionism” that is obviously without any real expressionist feeling or conviction because it’s completely calculated for effect. Expressionists weren’t painters who, I quote from a description of her work, were in their early paintings applying “modern feminist theory to the traditional genre of the female nude”…and going on to use their… “strongly figurative style to address broader issues such as gender and sexual identity.”

Saville is using more dark blood colors but you can see if you go up to the detail of the other painting that she has those same light blue marks tastefully dabbed around the warm colors to get some “tasteful” color action. It’s purely gratuitous, just as Neiman’s marks are. Oddly, now that I’m looking at the Neiman I actually prefer it to Saville’s. He’s not trying to quote Bacon or Freud and so the contrived illustrator attack is fresher and less cloying. He’s also able to let go more with the palette knife and paint so that the expressionist surface has more life to it than Saville’s constricted pseudo-form which keeps falling apart, uncertain whether to build the form or to knock it down. Pure confusion… not compelling or interesting. You end up with your eye try to address all the errors. I remember Resnick making up a neutral paste and painting out areas of paintings that weren’t working to refresh the whole thing. Painters like Fischl and Saatchi end up going nowhere because they’re told that they’re geniuses before they even begin to learn how to paint. So they’re unable to take any critical stance toward their own work. They get caught in the cycle of having to please their masters. Everything they do just looks more and more gratuitous.

Anyone wanting to see a great portrait painter, take a look at some of those Arles Van Gogh paintings. Nothing in them is  put there without pure feeling and observation along with  long and hard won knowledge of where he wanted to take his vision. The painting is the mind working. The mind recreating the world. Painting doesn’t mean anything. It’s not some feminist statement or any statement. It’s not a kid masturbating in a pool… looking for some kind of image that is “psychological” or provocative. This kind of painting is the lowest rung of the painting ladder. A picture isn’t a painting.

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2 Responses to The Jenny Saville Question

  1. simon shawn says:

    I wouldn’t agree at all on his technical analysis of saville concerning her use of color planes. I also wouldn’t compare her to Freud or bacon…any artist of talent can see that saville’s intent is far different than bacon’s or freud’s. eg, for starters Freud painted from life, took 9 months to finish a painting, had no political or social commentary in his work and was a pure realist, but not in the sense of copying the motif- he went beyond that into a recreation of the model, ie, the paint is the model. It is interesting to note the complete lack of shadows on his figures. Form was created in more subtle ways, essentially recreating form with nothing incidental.
    The commenter does not realize that every artist who paints very realistically will generally always draw on the canvas first, then paint… There are many reasons, the big one being less error later….and Freud drew before painting like everyone else.

    Saville aims to say something social with her work, which is partly why she paints large. She paints incidentals, lighting, copies the motif, has different objectives than freud. She didn’t do the drawings to learn something about human form…she is quite capable of realistic painting. Her forms are different than Freud’s for all sorts of reasons…a big one being she paints from photos. Those supposed misplaced color planes are intentional. She likes shocking, beat up flesh, and this sort of informs all her work. The comparisons to bacon are ridiculous, one may as well compare her to Duchamp… Bacon’s intents were so different than hers, ESP his ideas about form.

    Saying fischl is a poor painter is to not understand that he is a conceptual artist and ‘proper’ painting is the last thing on his mind. If he was to paint in the manner of Sargent, then his work would immediately fly into the realm of ridiculous…fischl’s work is about the idea,,,it wouldn’t make a difference if his painting was a photo collage or sculpture or drawing. The painting is just a pointer…this is what conceptual art is. Saville is a painter, so putting her in his camp is betraying ignorance again.

  2. trueoutsider says:

    Fischl isn’t a conceptual artist. If a Sol Lewitt or Larry Weiner wanted to call themselves figurative painters that wouldn’t put them any closer to being included in the ranks of figurative painters. If you look at a book of conceptual artists, you won’t find Eric Fischl included or mentioned. I might go so far as to say that Fischl’s main problem as an artist is that he’s working in a genre he has no feel or enthusiasm for and it shows abundantly in all his work. Fischl’s work wouldn’t fly off into realm of the ridiculous if he were to paint like Sargent, it’s already in the realm of the ridiculous. That’s what happens when you paint figuratively and think of yourself as a conceptual artist.

    Really, Simon, it’s hard to know what to say to your remarks. “Saville aims to say something social with her work which is partly why she paints large.” Did Hogarth have to paint large to say something “social” in his work? And what in the world do bloated figures of women have to say about society other than that obesity has become a feature of certain Western societies? An

    You write about Freud: “It is interesting to note the complete lack of shadows on his figures.” Are you serious? You think those figures/portraits don’t have a shadow side and a light side which is what makes the illusion of form? Have you been drinking? I feel like I could use one at this point.

    To say that Saville paints from photos and likes “shocking, beat up flesh” and then say it’s ridiculous to compare her to Bacon? So you think I shouldn’t compare one artist who likes shocking beat up flesh and uses photos to another who does the same thing?

    You create a funny subversion of what you’ve written when you say I might as well compare Saville’s work to Duchamp’s…. then in the next paragraph you go on to compare Fischl’s work to Duchamp’s…. Duchamp being the unwitting fore runner of conceptual art.

    Anyway, thanks for writing.

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