Art review: Jenny Saville, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

One out of two (symposium), 2016  Charcoal and pastel on canvas, 152 x 225 x 3.2 cm  � Jenny Saville.  Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.  Photo: Mike Bruce
One out of two (symposium), 2016 Charcoal and pastel on canvas, 152 x 225 x 3.2 cm � Jenny Saville. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Photo: Mike Bruce
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Jenny Saville has come to occupy something of a mythical place in the history of contemporary art in Scotland: her degree show work from Glasgow School of Art was bought by Charles Saatchi, then came London, New York, and representation by Gagosian. New paintings are snapped up by private collectors for eye-watering prices.

NOW | Jenny Saville, Sara Barker, Christine Borland, Robin Rhode, Markus Schinwald, Catherine Street, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

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The point is that relatively few people, particularly in Scotland, ever get to see her work. This exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is only Saville’s third in a museum, her first in Scotland, and the National Galleries have managed to beg and borrow a selection of her work which gives some indication of the directions in which she has gone in the last 26 years.

Saville is the central focus of a group show of contemporary art, the third in the series of six NOW exhibitions, but her work is such a draw, and has such a powerful presence, that it’s in danger of looking like a solo show. The idea behind NOW is to look at a selection of work in the light of a theme (in this case, the body, physicality, performance), but the danger is that the other work will start to look like Saville’s warm-up act. The design of the show, which builds up to Saville in a kind of visual crescendo, does little to dispel this.

Having got this out of the way, allow me to say that the Savilles are stunning. Seen alongside more recent work, the works from her degree show and early career have the same scale, ambition, aptitute; it’s as if she arrived fully formed. One of the first we see is a degree show work, Propped, a voluptuous female nude perched on a high stool, hung opposite a mirror in which we can read a quote in mirror-writing from the Belgian feminist theorist Luce Irigaray. In order to read it, however, we have to not only peer closely at the contours of her flesh, we have to put ourselves in the picture with her.

This is as conceptual as Saville gets. Generally, she is much more interested in the fleshiness of flesh. Like Lucien Freud, with whom she is sometimes compared, she sculpts bodies out of paint, solid, unidealised bodies, which seem to occupy same space as we do. Trace is a woman viewed from behind, the elastic marks of her underwear still imprinted on her flesh. In a way, Saville is a painter of traces, the marks and imperfections on the skin are the marks of lived lives. A painting like Witness confronts this more directly, showing a damaged, bleeding mouth, and the beautiful work Gestation captures a woman in the later stages of pregnancy.

These works take ordinary bodies and make them monumental in scale, particularly Fulchrum, three female bodies which seem almost to be stacked on top of one another, and Olympia, the entwined bodies of a white woman and black man, set against a city skyline. They are more than representations of the human form, they are somehow about the experience of being human. A brand new work, Aleppo, a response to the Syrian refugee crisis, hung between Titians at the National Gallery on the Mound, takes that theme in a new direction.

Saville’s recent work makes use of charcoal and pastels, which enables her to layer figures on top of one another, overdrawing and erasing until we can be no longer be sure which limbs belong to which torso, yet with moments of superlative draftsmanship emerging from the chaos. One is reminded how Picasso, having mastered the painting of the human form, began to experiment, capturing not just figures but movement, time, the converging of different realities.

Having been appropriately dazzled by Saville, it is worth going back to spend time with the work of the other five artists in the show. Christine Borland, who graduated from GSA just as Saville was starting, produces work which is quieter but, in its own way, equally arresting. Positive Pattern, a commission for the Institute of Transplantation in Newcastle, is a series of sculptures which embody the spaces inside Barbara Hepworth wood carvings. Delicate, private things, they are human in scale yet strangely other, negative space given substance. Somehow, she seems to have captured something of the essence of the transplant process, with its simultaneous dramas of life and loss.

There is something of the same positive-negative dynamic in the work of Edinburgh-based artist Catherine Street, who has created a body of work called A hoarding of greenery, a flow of redemption using cut-out and collage, film and text. Her focus is mainly on flowers clipped from botany books and gardening magazines but, while intricate and clever, they don’t impact in same way as either Borland or Saville.

Glasgow-based Sara Barker is perhaps the most unexpected artist in the show, but her inclusion here shines an important light on her work. Barker produces three dimensional works using metal and wire, sculptures with painted surfaces which exist somewhere between the media of painting and sculpture. In an exhibition about the physical, one becomes aware of how they are created on human scale: one includes mirrors in which we can see ourselves, another references a table-top. In an excellent body of new work shown at Mary Mary last year, she painted a number of figures. While her work still resists decoding, her placement here is a fascinating new insight into it.

Both South African artist Robin Rhode and Austrian Markus Schinwald capture elements of performance in their practice. Rhode’s work is multi-layered. In the six series of photographs shown here, he captures performers holding poses in front of a wall he has painted with colours and geometric shapes. Taking references as diverse as Le Corbusier, Carl Andre, Jimi Hendrix and Eadweard Muybridge, he is carrying out his own dynamic dialogue with the history of art.

Schinwald’s dual-screen film, Orient, first shown at the Venice Biennale in 2011, captures five performers in a derelict factory, at times almost dancing, at other times engaged in awkward, human movements – scratching a foot against a leg, trying to put on a pair of trousers. With a mesmerising soundtrack of music and voices, the film seems to loop and repeat across the two screens. Though it is, perhaps, the most performative piece here, it seems to move away from physicality into a psychological, metaphorical realm. n

Until 16 September