Jenny Saville at the Gagosian Gallery in Brittania St WC1
I remember seeing Saville’s work at the original boundary road saatchi gallery probably about twentyr years ago now. It made a strong impact, and it staked out a territory. It was very challenging, memorable and strong. It engaged with the traditions of life painting, but also with modern ideas of gender, individuality and dialogue.
It was with some anticipation then that I went to her solo show at the Gagosian gallery in King’s Cross. I had not seen a great deal of her work together in the interim period although I was aware of it. The previous shows I had seen in this space were Twombly and Baselitz, both titans of modern paint. Was Saville up there with them?
Sadly the answer for me is no….this show is a disappointment.
What this work feels like is a losing struggle to integrate traditional figure drawing into 21st century art practice. Whereas previously the intrusion of text in her paintings was an instinctive allusion to thought processes around the subject this new work seems to try to integrate different drawing styles. By allowing the intrusion of other visual languages the work takes on the quality of overlaid pastiches rather than a forceful assertion of a vision.
It is as if the initial impulse to draw that has sustained us since prehistoric times is becoming as debased as photography. The drawing here is what many people would consider accomplished and yet it seems unable to stand alone without other fussy mark making that undercuts it and detaches the artist’s hand from it. It is almost a quotation of a drawn mark – what a drawn mark used to look like when drawing meant something, when just to draw was permitted.
The work on offer is that regulation institutional scale required to fill a gallery this size. I worry about this. Perhaps my memory is making the older pictures better than the ones in front of me now, but I feel the older ones justified their size. The monumental figures in them made the canvasses feel small although they were anything but. By contrast the new pictures feel as though they struggle to completely fill the area. It feels diluted, the power is lost.