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.

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Art Chronicles: Best of 2017

Ask who are my favourite artists and the answer comes without hesitation: Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. Ask who I think is the greatest artist of the last 150 years – great in terms of the overall quality of the work and the pleasures it brings, great in terms of its originality and influence – and I’ll turn slightly pale and tell you such a distinction is not only worthless but impossible. And then, when my arm is metaphorically up my back and the pressure is on, I’ll say, well, of course, it’s Cezanne.

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The current show at the National Portrait Gallery [till February 11th, 2018] concentrates on the portraits (Duh!) which formed a significant part of Cezanne’s work, although he’s not, I think, primarily thought of as a portrait painter. What they illustrate is his growing confidence as an artist, his expanding love of colour, of the richness of paint on canvas, the mark, as he progressed from impressionism towards a burgeoning modernism that held within itself the beginnings of cubism – of Modern Art. And this without losing sight of the sitter, his or her individuality.

Without being (thankfully) of block-busting proportions, it’s a large show, with the works well-displayed and aided rather than, as if too often the case, detracted from, by the wall captions, which are clearly and sensible written, giving just the right amount and kind of information, avoiding the all-too-typical ‘art speak’ that mars far too many exhibitions with over-intellectualised gobbledygook.

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Perhaps the most important single exhibition of the year, however, was Soul of a Nation at Tate Modern. Sub-titled Art in the Age of Black Power, and concentrating on work from the two decades following the struggle for Civil Rights, this gave a first showing in this country to a large number of black artists whose work had previously been overlooked, at the same time as giving a wider platform to painters such as Norman Lewis and David Hammons and the photographer Roy DeCarava.

The Place is Here, at Nottingham Contemporary, was the perfect companion piece to Soul of a Nation, concentrating as it did on the work of Black British artists during the 1980s, including Lubaina Himid’s  “A Fashionable Marriage”, one of the pieces for which she was awarded this year’s Turner Prize.

American Art was generally well represented. America After The Fall at the Royal Academy and American Prints: Pop to the Present at the British Museum were absorbing surveys, in the case of the BM quite splendidly displayed. And both the exhibition of Rauschenberg’s work at Tate Modern at the beginning of the year, and that of Jasper Johns at the Royal Academy towards the end, were testimony to the breadth and seriousness of their practice. [Johns, he’s that bloke that paints flags, yeah? Well, look again.]

Amongst the other shows I visited during the year, these also stood out …

  • Walhalla – Anselm Kiefer : White Cube, Bermondsey
  • Wolfgang Tillmanns 2017 : Tate Modern
  • The Discovery of Mondrian : Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag
  • Revolution – Russian Art 1917-1932 : Royal Academy
  • Alice Neel, Uptown : Victoria Miro
  • States of America : Nottingham Contemporary
  • Instant Stories – Wim Wenders’ Polaroids : Photographers’ Gallery
  • Impulse – Pace Gallery
  • Soutine – Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys : Courtauld Gallery

 

 

 

Art Chronicles: Rachel Whiteread

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Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, Vienna : Rachel Whiteread

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Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, Vienna : Rachel Whiteread

I’ve seen images of Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture that stands in Judenplatz in the first district of Vienna as a memorial to the Austrian victims of the Holocaust, but never the thing itself. Nevertheless, I’ve talked about it, written essays about it; praised, admired and been awestruck by it. Constructed from concrete and steel, it stands, squat, solid and unflourished, at the centre of a square overlooked by ‘fine’ houses, formerly homes to many of the Jews who were transported to those concentration camps whose names are engraved at the foot of the sculpture.

It is a library: a library to which the doors remain resolutely closed. No one can enter: and if they could, once inside, they could never escape. The walls are made from casts of library shelves lined with books, but the books – which all look like the same book – stand inside out, their titles and authors hidden. Anonymous and unread. Lives unaccounted for. Unacknowledged. It’s a statement about the loss of identity, the loss of life, the denial of memory. Uncompromising and uncompromised.

A powerful work, whose strength of form signifies its strength of meaning and discourages the ease of tears.

To have expected something similar, work which would have the same power or elicit a similar response, from the retrospective of Whiteread’s work currently at Tate Britain would have been unfair and not a little foolish. What I hadn’t been prepared for was being just a little bit bored.

Part of the problem [a problem for me, but not, from speaking briefly to others at the gallery, for many] is that Whiteread’s most significant work – which can mean having a significance beyond itself –  is public work on a large scale and so can only be shown here in a photograph, a diagram, a plan. What the gallery gives us is a generously large space with several larger pieces – the interior, stairs and floors, of the former warehouse in which she and her family once lived; the room in Broadcasting House which might have been the inspiration for Orwell’s Room101 – at the centre and smaller works – windows and doors cast in plaster and coloured resins – arranged around the perimeter.

Walking round, it’s not difficult to think, okay, this is very clever, but why? Why in the case of the doors and windows, the Tate handout tells us, because “Such a re-imagining of this range of forms in their cast versions, as sculpture, emphasises their details and our relationship with the structures that surround us.”

To which I can only say, “Hmm … ”

But all was not lost. Along one wall there is a delightful array of small objects, some brightly coloured – and, oh, how the heart was crying out for colour in the midst of so much grey concrete – casts of everyday objects such as boxes and, nicest of all, the cylindrical tubes from the centre of toilet rolls. Even better, on the wall at the opposite end hang a number of photographs, sketches and drawings made using pen, pencil or paint – for the most part preparatory work leading up to the final sculptures, but satisfying in themselves. And, best of all, a long vitrine in which is displayed a selection made by Whiteread herself of pages from her notebooks, more sketches and photographs, along with a number of objects she has collected and kept. Absolutely fascinating.

Outside the gallery space, in the Duveen Galleries, are a number of pieces Whiteread has selected from the Tate’s permanent collection – sculptures by Richard Deacon, Barry Flanagan, Barbara Hepworth, Rebecca Warren and others. As one of the visitors I spoke to said, the problem with is that, set against range and liveliness of that work, Whiteread’s own can suffer in comparison.

And finally, a literary footnote. For the sales display outside, amongst the catalogues and postcards, is a small selection of books that Whiteread has recommended: and what a selection! Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead; The Safety of Objects by A. M. Homes; short stories by Lydia Davis and Raymond Carver; Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary; Henning Mankel. Enough to form the beginning of a small library of contemporary fiction.

 

 

Art Shows of the Year, 2015

For me, there were three absolutely brilliant shows this year, each challenging in the artist’s own way and equally unforgettable: Marlene Dumas’ “The Image as Burden” at Tate Modern, Agnes Martin, also at Tate Modern, and Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain.

Marlene Dumas

Marlene Dumas: ‘Evil is Banal’

Close behind those, I was exhilarated and delighted by Peter Lanyon’s landscape/gliding paintings, “Soaring Flight” at the Courtauld.

Peter Lanyon: 'Soaring Flight'

Peter Lanyon: ‘Soaring Flight’

There were other exhibitions of real quality: Richard Diebenkorn at the Royal Academy; Glen Ligon’s “Encounters and Collisions” at Nottingham Contemporary; Cornelia Parker at the Whitworth, Manchester; George Shaw’s “The Last Days of Belief” at the Wilkinson Gallery; Jackson Pollock’s “Blind Spots” at Tate Liverpool.

And three excellent survey shows: “Reality – Modern & Contemporary British Painting” at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; “Abstract Britain” at The Higgins, Bedford; and “The Bigger Picture – Painting in Cornwall from the 1920s to the 1960s” at Penlee House in Penzance.

Art Chronicles, Lanyon & Auerbach, November 2015

Peter Lanyon

It took me a while to appreciate Peter Lanyon as much as I do now, as much as he deserves; there were other artists from the far west of Cornwall – Patrick Heron, Sandra Blow – whose work was more immediate, more immediately appealing. But with Soaring Flight, the Courtauld’s current (until 17th January, 2016) exhibition of Lanyon’s gliding paintings, I’m well and truly hooked.

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This is an almost perfect show: 18 paintings and 3 constructions displayed in two rooms. Time and space to give the works their due. And space is what that have, what they glory in. Space and air and movement, cloud and sky and sea; the cliffs, the land somewhere down there, stretched out below.

Lanyon’s approach to painting, his approach to landscape changed when he began to glide, began to fly. The paint itself thinned as his vision cleared; the lines, the marks took flight. There is no escaping (why would you?) the sense of exhilaration that lives through these paintings, their sense of joy.

Peter Lanyon: 'Soaring Flight'

Peter Lanyon: ‘Soaring Flight’

Frank Auerbach

Look back through the archway from the first, smaller, room of Lanyon’s paintings at the Courtauld – look back from the most heavily textured of the works, “Solo Flight”, painted onto board instead of canvas, thicker paint, scumbled surface – and you’re looking at one of the Courtauld’s recent acquisitions, Auerbach’s “Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square”.

Peter Lanyon: "Solo Flight"

Peter Lanyon: “Solo Flight”

 

Frank Auerbach: "Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square"

Frank Auerbach: “Rebuilding the Empire Cinema, Leicester Square”

“Solo Flight”, from 1960, is one of Lanyon’s first attempts to convey the experience of gliding in paint; Auerbach’s Leicester Square painting – one of a series he made depicting London building sites, shown together previously at the Courtauld – the exhibition that brought me towards a fuller understanding and appreciation of his work – is from two years later. [Fascinating, the comparable use of thick red line marking out the paintings’ stretch and span.]

Lanyon, as I’ve suggested, moved away from the thicker texture evident here towards a clearer, more open use of paint, whereas Auerbach, of course, remained, and remains, deeply immersed in impasto, conveying his subjects with a richness that seems, at first glance, to clog the canvas and obscure them from our sight.

Which is, of course, a large part of the point. The way the paint is applied prevents you from seeing too soon all that is there: to see what is in the painting, what exists through and because of and beneath the paint, you have to give it the time it deserves; you have, simply, to stand and stare, and as you do, if you do, the elements of the work gradually reveal themselves to the eye.

Try it. Even with the small reproduction above. Go on, give it a try.

Quite unlike the smaller and more specific Lanyon show at the Courtauld, the exhibition of Frank Auerbach’s work at Tate Britain (until 13th March, 2016) is, as befits a major retrospective by a major artist, suitably vast. Six rooms, each arranged chronologically and selected by the artist himself, together with a final room with pieces  chosen by the show’s curator, Catherine Lampert.

Even with the work of an artist you’re to some extent familiar with, it’s good to have preconceived opinions disturbed. Before my first visit to this exhibition I would have said that I prefered Auerbach’s landscapes – cityscapes, really – Mornington Crescent, Primrose Hill, areas of north London with which I’m familiar – to the other major form in which he works, portraiture. But now, well, I’m not so sure. There’s a relentlessness, a power and a passion to the best of these that – as if discovering them anew, which in a way I was – made me go back to the portraits again and again.

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