by Sue Hubbard
Jenny Saville. Oxyrhynchus. Gagosian, 6-24 Britannia Street, London WC1X9JD. June 13 – July 26, 2014
Celia Paul. Victoria Miro, 16 Wharf Road, London, N1 7RW. 12 June – 2 August 2014
Two current shows at major London galleries illustrate that painting is not only alive and well but a vibrant, intellectually and emotionally challenging force. Both these shows are figurative and both are by women. I first met Jenny Saville when she was 22. She'd just left Glasgow School of Art and Charles Saatchi had purchased her MA show and offered an 18-month contract to support her while she made new work to be exhibited in his London gallery. Interviewing her for Time Out, I found her idealistic and determined that Saatchi ‘wouldn't change her'. Her work was aggressive, personal, raw and highly accomplished. Flesh and the female body were her subjects and graffiti-style texts that subverted traditional notions of feminine beauty were scored, like self-inflicted wounds, into the thick impasto of the body of her subjects. Although part of a generation for whom painting – in particular figure painting – was not considered fashionable, she was soon to be seen as the heir to Lucien Freud.
Now Gagosian Galley is presenting her first-ever solo show in London: Oxyrhynchus. A number of these new works are inspired by the rubbish dump found on this ancient Egyptian archaeological site where heaps of discarded documents were preserved in the area's dry climate, including Euclid's Elements and fragments of Sappho's poems. This historic palimpsest has given Saville an intellectual armature on which to hang much of her imagery that often involves the complex layering of bodies. Faces and limbs overlap and ghostly reflections create a series doppelgangers or shadow selves. The viewer's eye slips between forms, uncertain which limb belongs to which figure, as in Leonardo's cartoon of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John Baptist, circa 1499, where theownership of individual arms and legs is ambiguous. In the exhibition's title work, (pastel and charcoal on canvas), bodies have been reduced to fragments. A foot sticks from a heap of marks as though broken from an ancient sculpture. Elsewhere there's a pile of breasts. This intermingling and cross-referencing runs through Saville's work; black bodies intertwine with white, genders are blurred. Modern life is not seen as fixed but as complex and fluid. Boundaries and borders dissolve. Saville pays a conscious debt to art history with her references to Degas' Olympia, and her nervy abstract marks that wrestle to find form and space in the manner of De Kooning.