trained—and straining—through layers of paint, pastel, and charcoal, Jenny Saville’s nudes are creatures of habit, ostentatiously so. They intersect and overlay one another with such splashy abandon that each outcome is predictably concussed. They end up looking like ambitious tryouts for posters or book jackets.
This isn’t to say that they are illustrative. On the contrary, they carry on as though designed to confuse the onlooker a little before resolving into reminders of great figure paintings of the past. The odalisque plays a part, as do the Venus and the Madonna. No longer do Saville’s figures have signs of self-harm marking bellies and flanks; there is instead a flow of sexual transactions doused with lashings of grays and blacks, and here the straining becomes showy.
The ambition is admirable, and the execution is rarely anything less than arresting. But one painting after another demonstrates Saville’s barely disguised desire to pay respects to the Leonardo cartoon while maintaining an interest in the loopy strokes of late de Kooning. In couplings marked by dramatic flourishes, the limbs end in cleanly delineated hands and feet, and these rather spoil the look of each tussle. There is an obvious appetite for breathing life into what, in the mid-19th century, were termed Salon machines. But the effort blows hot and cold: simultaneously chilled and torrid.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 110.