Jenny Saville at Modern Art Oxford - Nick Reading
3rd September 2012
Things were thrown upside down this month when, out of nowhere, I somehow landed an internship at The Independent. Within a fortnight I was clearing out the desk at my incumbent admin position (pocketing the odd packet of paperclips in the process, but sshhh, after what I’ve been through there over the past 18 months I deserve it), and then preparing, with a sudden unexpected feeling of sentimentality, to cycle out through its gates for the final time. The next thing I knew I was sitting nervously in the air-conditioned atrium of a swish building in Kensington: all glass and fountains and well dressed people eating paninis. I waited for the arrival of my contact, all the while kicking myself over my decision to not wear a tie.
The frightfully sophisticated marble and double-espresso ambience of Derry Street was in stark contrast to the noisy, greasy clamour of the exhaust factory in East Oxford which I had just left, and the whole situation (not to mention the speed at which it had come about), felt more than a tad surreal: I’ve read The Independent for years and have always hopelessly fantasised about one day working for them; their arts coverage is one of the best in the mainstream media. An exhibition that has consistently topped the “Visual Arts Highlights” of the Saturday supplement in recent weeks is YBA painter Jenny Saville’s current retrospective at Modern Art Oxford: incredibly her first UK solo show in a public gallery. Pulling together examples of her work from the early 1990s (when Charles Saatchi bought her entire MA portfolio), right up to the present, it is by far the best exhibition I’ve seen at the gallery in all the time I’ve lived in the area. (Parenthetically, in a coincidental turn of events four weeks ago myself and the band I drum for were interviewed by the BBC inside Modern Art Oxford against the eerie backdrop of Saville’s towering 2004 masterpiece “Torso 2”, but that’s another story).
Anyway, the paintings: For those who aren’t familiar with her work, Saville is famed for her contemporary take on traditional figurative oil painting: she proves that this most established and orthodox of mediums can still push boundaries and be relevant in the context of the digital revolution’s inexorable technicolour advance. Here we can trace her development from the (relatively) conventional Lucian Freud-influenced self-portraits and female nudes of the Saatchi days, to her later works depicting strung-up animal carcasses, pre-op transsexuals and lurid plastic surgery disasters. I’d been familiar with many of the images on display since first chancing upon a book of her work in my art foundation days, but no photograph can quite prepare you for the sheer confrontational scale of something like “Passage”. Furthermore, the painterly technique evidenced in her later style, well established by the mid 2000s in “Stare” and the already mentioned “Torso 2”, is simply gobsmacking. It’s impossible to do it justice in words: sort of like rampant chaos, but controlled with a masterly perfection. As a painter myself I was reduced to simply staring upwards and gawping. The works here are canvasses that you can stand in front of endlessly, trying unsuccessfully to deconstruct how the images were put together. In the end though, my ruminations were cut short as the gallery was past closing time and I was harried out by an increasingly flustered looking assistant.
Refreshingly, there’s no grand concept or agenda behind Jenny Saville’s work; as far as I can see her paintings are simply there to be enjoyed. Furthermore, from a personal point of view, it’s good to see that there are shows outside London that can easily compete with what’s on offer in the capital. London-centricity and bias is something that perennially irks me. But needs must, and in light of my new situation the necessity to move back there looms - my wilderness days in Oxford are numbered. The success of the Saville exhibition lies with it’s simplicity; for two years I’d craved an unpretentious, straightforward show in the gallery but always been disappointed. This one, however, turned out to be an eleventh hour tour de force. Next month: A five hundred page report detailing the seedy inner workings of the newspaper industry from an insider’s perspective. Or something. Maybe I’ll leave that to Lord Justice Leveson instead.
Jenny Saville runs at Modern Art Oxford on Pembroke Street until September 16th!