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.
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by Sue Hubbard
It takes a certain chutzpah for an artist to dig out his early student work and put it on display for the world to access, especially in a rarefied Mayfair Gallery hidden away in a gracious Georgian house just yards from Claridges Hotel. In the case of Peter Doig, such confidence may well be underwritten by the fact that his White Canoe – a dreamy painting of a boat reflected in a lake like some post-modern version of Charon's craft – fetched the staggering sum of £5.7m in 2007 when put up for auction by Charles Saatchi.
Doig is something of an outsider. Born in Edinburgh in 1959, the son of a peripatetic shipping accountant, he lived in Trinidad from the age of two to seven, then moved to Canada until he was nineteen, where he took up such northern rituals as skiing and ice hockey. After leaving for London to study painting at St. Martin's, followed by an MA at the Chelsea College of Art, he supported himself as a dresser at the English National Opera and became absorbed in the emerging club scene frequented by the likes of performance artist Leigh Bowery and experimental film makers such as Isaac Julien. Chelsea College was a very different proposition, then, to Goldsmiths, the conceptual kindergarten that spawned Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst under the éminence grise Michael Craig Martin. It was full of painters still interested in the possibilities of what paint could do, despite the popular mantra that painting was a dead form. Doig was never allied to the conceptualist YBAs, or included in Saatchi's watershed show Sensation at the Royal Academy in 1997. And, unlike many of the YBAs, he continues to work alone, without a studio full of assistants. It doesn't appeal to him be surrounded by people he has to keep busy; to become a production line. He likes the “simplicity” of paint; “the directness, the dabbling quality”; and still believes in the possibilities of being able to surprise and innovate in this most ancient of media. People are always asking him when he's going to make a film. But he's not interested. His outsider status has meant that like many émigrés, he responds best to places he knows when he is not actually there. Canada was painted whilst in London, the Caribbean from the vantage point of his Tribeca Studio.
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Full of iconoclastic verve they filled the Royal Academy for Charles Saatchi’s infamous 1977 exhibition Sensation with unmade beds , pickled sharks and an image of the serial killer Myra Hindley painted using children’s handprints. Now their waist lines are thickening and they face the slow decline from the excitement and glamour of being YBAS (Young British Artists) to MABAS (Middle Aged British Artists). In the case of the Queen of the Britart pack, Tracey Emin, she has also renounced her role as official enfant terrible by recently coming out in support of the Tories as “natural patrons” of the arts. There can be few artists in recent years in Britain, except Damien Hirst, who can be so readily identified in the public consciousness by a single work. Everyone has an opinion of her 1999 Turner Prize exhibit My Bed with its sex-tossed sheets, stained knickers, spent condoms and cigarette stubs. As with her igloo-like tent appliquéd with the names of all the people she has ever slept with, (lost in the MOMART fire), the subject is herself. It is her only subject. Her work chronicles the child abuse, the teenage rape, the broken relationships and her botched abortion. In this, her first London retrospective, the solipsism is evident in titles such as Conversation with my Mum, 2001, Details of Depression When you’re sad you only see sad things, 2003, The first time I was pregnant I started to crochet the baby a shawl 1998-2004 and Those who suffer love, 2009.
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