in Features | 08 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 5

Artists' Artists - Joan Semmel

Artists write about a work of art that has influenced them

in Features | 08 SEP 16

Jenny Saville, Fulcrum, 1998–99

Jenny Saville, Fulcrum, 1998–99, oil on canvas, 2.6×4.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and Gagosian Gallery, London; photograph: Steven Russell

In 1999, Jenny Saville showed a body of work in New York that blew my mind. Here was a much younger British woman making monumental paintings that embodied many of the ideas with which I had been working. Her work had a command and energy, a power and conviction, an originality and depth that I had not experienced in any contemporary figurative art until then. For me, it was a joyful moment to experience an affirmation of my belief that there was still much to do regarding the nude, and necessary for women to be doing it.

In her painting Fulcrum (1998–99), the huge canvas overflows with lusciously painted female flesh; weighted bodies are spread out and piled into a mountain, one on top of the other, all locked together in a tight embrace. The exceptional fluidity and high gestural quality of the paint that becomes flesh — the one into the other, inseparable — emphasizes the carnality of both. The colour ranges from warm earth tones to blued-off
cool. A mountain of bodies presses against the picture plane, straining to explode into the viewer’s space, then precariously holds, but leaves you gasping. The sheer virtuosity of Saville’s handling of the paint, of the dimensionality of the forms and of the scale is impressive. The painting is, above all, visceral — sometimes shockingly so — but never didactic. It’s open to many readings.

The implied content is equally challenging. The overflowing flesh in the painting — the non-idealized images that don’t subscribe to movie or advertising images of youth and beauty — speaks to a humanity and mortality which is sorely lacking in contemporary life. Other works in the same show played with gender: a male head on female bodies and a hermaphrodite pushed for a humanist interpretation that transcended feminist critique. The woman portrayed is also the face of the artist, which stretches meaning even further.

Saville has never totally abandoned the Renaissance way of depicting the body and has clearly studied the techniques of the masters; but, in so doing, she takes incredible liberties with the idea of a norm. Her distortions and her use of, at times, grotesque imagery recall both Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, as well as Willem de Kooning’s monstrous women. Yet, Saville never loses her identification with the subject, or with the sensuality and the fragility of the flesh. The immediacy and intensity of her painting process rejects all connections to an experience that is filtered through the eyes of others and insists on its own reality. Although she uses photographs, the substance of paint and her own emotional intent is the strongest reference. Fulcrum is a tour de force that re-awakens us to the power of an art fully felt and realized.

Joan Semmel lives and works in New York and Easthampton, USA. Her solo show at Alexander Gray Associates, New York, runs until 15 October.