Art of the Year, 2018

Well, even if I haven’t got to see everything I would have liked, it’s been a good year, especially for encountering artists I hadn’t come across before, Rana Begum for one. Her work somehow combines facets of minimalism with various kinds of patterning, some of her pieces (many?) depending for their effect on a kind of optical illusion. You thought you knew what this was? Then look again. And again. Whereas her show at the Djanogly gallery in Nottingham gave a fuller sense of her overall practice, at Ketttle’s Yard in Cambridge she filled a chapel annex with baskets you were forced to bend your way under and around, and at Tate St. Ives, in addition to a selection of small paintings, she hung painted fishing nets from the walls and filled a table with a variety of white sculptures based on different shapes and sizes of fishing floats. Fascinating.

Camden Arts Centre has a knack of presenting interesting work by lesser known artists and this year’s exhibition of abstract work by Amy Sillman was no exception. Great use of colour in the larger abstract pieces, set off against cartoon-like and politically (small p) figuration. I nearly missed Heidi Bucher at the Parasol Unit, a medium-size gallery next to Victoria Miro off City Road and was so pleased that I didn’t. Not dissimilar in some ways from the working practices of Rachel Whiteread or Anthony Gormley, Bucher [she died in 1993] made latex casts of building interiors (doors, windows), objects and clothing, the resultant ‘skinnings’ hung from ceilings or displayed on walls. Beautiful and deeply, deeply unsettling.

Just about as unsettling as the huge paintings of faces – mostly faces, overflowing flesh and faces – in the brilliant exhibition of Jenny Saville’s work at the Scottish National Gallery. I’d never seen as much of her work in one place before and the effect was close to overwhelming. But brilliant.

Caroline Walker is an artist whose development I’ve been happy to follow for quite a while now [ever since those days when I could afford to buy it!] and the paintings that comprised Home, again at Kettle’ s Yard, are amongst her best, not least for the care and dignity she gives to her subjects, all of whom are/were female asylum seekers living in London.

Finally, mention of three near-perfectly curated [to use the word in its proper sense, for once] shows : Picasso 1932 at Tate Modern, Cezanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery and the Permanent Collection rehang at Tate St. Ives.

 

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Art Chronicles: Jenny Saville

I first encountered Jenny Saville’s work, alongside that of Tracey Emin, Chris Ofili, Damien Hirst and others, when she was included in the newsworthy, even notorious,  Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997. More recently, two of her canvases were shown at Tate Britain as part of All Too Human: Bacon, Freud and a century of Painting Life. One linked her with that loose agglomeration of mainly young and controversial artists short-handed as YBAs; the other positioned her within the broader tradition of representational painters of the human figure – the body. Only with the survey that forms the major part of the current NOW show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One) in Edinburgh, did I have the opportunity to see as broad a selection of her work in one place – seventeen pieces ranging from the 1992 “Propped” to “Aleppo” from 2017/18.

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Jenny Saville Fulcrum 1998/99

The effect is to be – let’s step aside from any art speak here – gob-smacked, slapped into consciousness. First it’s the size – these are big canvasses and in this perfectly hung exhibition they are granted the space they deserve; then its the paint – the thickness, richness of the paint – and the flesh, the flesh of female bodies, faces – flesh that is almost overwhelming, overwhelmingly real, faces that are torn yet tender.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Saville studied anatomy, that she has or had a particular interest in plastic surgery, that the many images she has collected range from those illustrating war wounds to the physical abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Pain manifests itself in some of these paintings, cruelty even. And yet there is a tenderness here – call it love, even – sympathy, affection.

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Jenny Saville Hyphen 1999 [detail]
Hyphen - close up
Jenny Saville Hyphen 1999 [detail]

I came to see the material of paint as a kind of liquid flesh I could mould in my hands.

Astonishing, that’s what these paintings are, astonishingly real. Look, look away, look again; look up close at the sworls and gouges of paint, paint dragged across the surface of the canvas, the surface of the body. Women’s bodies.

The history of art has been dominated by men, living in ivory towers, seeing women as sexual objects. I paint women as most women see themselves. I try to catch their identity, their skin, their hair, their heat, their leakiness.

Fulcrum - close up
Jenny Saville Fulcrum 1998/99 [detail]
Fulcrum - detail
Jenny Saville Fulcrum 1998/99 [detail]
NOW is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until September 16th.