Description: B. 1970
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108 x 144 1/8 in. 274.3 x 366.1 cm.
signed and dated 2003 on the reverse
oil on canvas
Gagosian Gallery, New York
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville: Migrants, April - May 2003, illustrated in color
Seeing someone asleep is the ultimate intimacy. In Still, Jenny Saville presents herself in a state of total vulnerability: devoid of make-up, uncoiffed and stripped of all vanity. Her mouth hangs slightly open, suggesting belabored breathing, while her features seem swollen and puffy. Her closed eyes make her unable to notice or question our scrutiny, passive to our gaze. Some critics have seen in the work intimations of mortality, mistaking its openness and vulnerability for weakness, but the allusive title implies a sense of continuance, endurance and perseverance despite her immobility, while her unflinching honesty is an act of unusual and life affirming boldness. She paints herself --to quote Oliver Cromwell's request to his portraitist Lely -- "warts and all". A powerful statement, Still is totally and candidly devoid of the tactical self-fashioning that has characterized portraiture since the Renaissance.
As always, the pliable flesh fills Saville's canvas, as her women luxuriate in their ample forms. Our viewpoint is always so close, so intimate, that the statuesque bodies expand to fill every corner of our field of vision, like gazing out at the earth from a low orbit, while the rich and contoured surfaces of her subjects have all the detail and complexity of a landscape. The weathered skin becomes a map of their existence; their bruises, scars, wrinkles and worry lines are like a chart of their passage through life, each one suffered and each one healed, but indelible. No evanescent models, whose slender forms are slowly refining themselves out of existence, these fecund females assert their presence with monumental grandeur and gravitas.
It's not hard to understand the feminist interpretations that her work often elicits, but as a New York Times art critic pointed out "what is more interesting is the fraught relationship between the macho formal dimensions and the content of brutalized femininity" (Ken Johnson, ``Jenny Saville -- Migrants, Art in Review'', The New York Times, April 25, 2003). Still's grand scale and bold brushstrokes, deftly capturing the dappled surface of the skin, appropriates what is perceived as a masculine gesturality to the service of a proud affirmation of the feminine. As Saville explained during an interview in 2005, "the art I like concentrates on the body....artists who get to the flesh. Visceral artists -- Bacon, Freud. And de Kooning, of course", while deploring that her chosen field is so "male-laden...so historically weighted" (Suzie Mackenzie, ``Under the Skin``, Arts Special Reports, The Guardian, October 22, 2005).
It was the combination of her technical prowess and this unflinching realism that led Charles Saatchi, the champion of young British art, to seek out her work while she was still in art school. Sensing a great discovery, Saatchi sponsored her production for a whole year -- "I just closed my door and worked for 18 months" Saville recalled, "what he did for me was amazing" (Ibid). Saville was one of the greatest discoveries by a man famous for his acumen in spotting rare talent, and is now recognized as one of the greatest British artists working today. Still was a highlight of her 2003 Migrants exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, her first exhibition since 1999 due to the painstaking and time-consuming nature of her painting process. In the words of Richard Dorment, Saville is like "a bel canto soprano, stunning her enraptured audience with her technique" (``Virtuoso Mountains of Quivering Flesh'', The Daily Telegraph, February 9th 1994).