Jenny Saville, Shift, 1996-97
It was the chicken in Ron Mueck’s show at Hauser and Wirth that made me think of Jenny Saville. I realise that probably sounds crazy but the chicken skin put me in mind of Saville’s Shift, a vast painting (something like 3.3m x 3.3m, so able to dominate the space even in a sizeable gallery) showing a row of women squashed up against each other. It’s a painting I haven’t seen in many years but of all Saville’s work – and she’s a painter I like a lot – it’s the piece that’s always had the strongest hold over me. It’s partly that Jenny Saville paints flesh really well and partly that I like the way she makes me think about body image and the way we’re conditioned to see ourselves. These aren’t the idealised figures of art history or women’s magazines; they are women as women are. It turns out that painting the female nude and feminism aren’t mutually exclusive – however much a trip to almost any major art museum might make it seem that way – which is good to know.
The lines in Plan mapping the topography of the body in a way that is reminiscent of the marks we see on pictures of those about to undergo cosmetic surgery. The woman is looking down in a way that suggests she could be reading her weight on a set of bathroom scales, but which also ensures she is meeting our gaze. The angle of view has the effect of exaggerating the size of her thighs in particular. My overwhelming feeling looking at this is that it’s a picture of someone who, by virtue of comparing her body with the idealised version of beauty she sees in the media, may see herself as bigger than she actually is; her response seems matter of fact and not really bothered by this though. As in quite a lot of Saville’s painting this is at least partially a self-portrait. Though working with models, the face is often Saville’s own
Trace shows the signs of the day on the woman’s body. The marks left by underwear and the waistband of her clothing are visible. There is a rawness to the marks that reflects the discomfort of slightly too tight elastic on the somewhat mottled skin. Though this speaks perhaps of squeezing into clothes that are that bit too small, the line across the woman’s back suggests that she’s been wearing an ill-fitting bra, at least a band size bigger than she needs.
Though the marks are similar to those many of us might find on removing clothes the feeling of the painting is one of pain. There is something about the slight hunch of the woman’s shoulders that suggests she may not be happy in her skin and the starkness of Saville’s painting emphasises this; the colour palette gives the figure a slightly bruised appearance but, I think, the bruising is metaphorical not physical. As in Plan, this is a woman who may not see her body as it actually is.
Strategy represents an undeniably obese form, exaggerated by the angle of view and the underwear. Her form is monumentalised by the scale of the painting – the triptych is over six metres wide and nearly three metres tall – and she actively holds our gaze.
For me, Saville’s work speaks of the disjuncture between ordinary women and representations of the female body in the media. Her women are unapologetically fleshy, posing a challenge both to art historical representations of beauty and to the ideals magazines encourage us to aspire to. It helps that Saville is a painter with an extraordinary ability when it comes to representing flesh. Her work isn’t always easy to look at but it’s never less than beautiful on its own terms.