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Jenny Saville's beefy bodies go on show in Oxford

This is the first solo show of the British artist in a UK public gallery

Jenny Saville’s overwhelming depictions of blemished, beefy bodies and faces fill Modern Art Oxford this month, in the first solo show of the British artist in a UK public gallery. Saville presents 25 pieces dating from 1993 to today, drawn mainly from US private collections and the holdings of her dealer, Gagosian Gallery. “It will be fascinating to look back over her career, observing how she works in a traditional medium and yet pushes her practice in new directions. The exhibition also prompts us to think about the continuing vitality of painting today,” Paul Luckraft, the show’s curator, says.

Works on show include the paintings Torso II, 2004-05, and Passage, 2004-5, both on loan from the Saatchi Gallery in London. The latter piece is a graphic, figurative representation of a transgender figure who gazes unremittingly at the viewer. “These works convey a sense of in-between-ness, between human and animal, life and death, for instance,” Luckraft says. “There is a certain harshness about the way she deals with the body and flesh as matter.”

Another key work is Atonement Studies: Central Panel (Rosetta), 2005-06, which, Luckraft says, is intriguing because “this painting is of a blind lady she met in Palermo, Sicily, and is a rare occasion of Saville making a single person the subject of a work, almost taking the form of a portrait.” Her works usually amalgamate multiple forms and references, the curator adds. 

Meanwhile, the nearby Ashmolean museum will install two charcoal drawings, inspired by Renaissance nativity paintings, in its Renaissance art gallery: Reproduction Drawing IV (After the Leonardo Cartoon), 2010, and Study for Pentimenti III (Sinopia), 2011. “These are more delicate than the visceral oil paintings but still very energetic,” Luckraft says.

Saville also charts new territory in the show. A new charcoal drawing on paper, as yet untitled, shows a tangle of reclining nudes, some appropriated from art history, and some based on life models photographed in Saville’s Oxford studio. “There is a continuation of some of the ideas and techniques embarked on in the recent “Reproduction” series, for instance: a collage-like layering in charcoal, demonstrating her amazing drawing skills,” Luckraft says. “The fact that these figures seem to be floating in a landscape, and in a picture plane with perspective and depth, feels like an exciting departure.”

Critics often cite Lucian Freud as a reference for Saville’s uncompromising figures, while the artist acknowledged her debt to de Kooning, Bacon and Giacometti in an interview in the 2012 publication Sanctuary: Britain’s Artists and Their Studios (TransGlobe publishing). But the biggest learning curve came from spending six months with plastic surgeons in New York. “I learnt about anatomy, about women’s perceptions of their bodies, [and] about what flesh is. Most profoundly, it gave me a model of how to paint,” Saville says.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Fat, flesh and Leonardo'