Last week, I had the displeasure of experiencing exhibition whiplash at Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue. On one side of the building, “Continuum”- an exquisite show by Jenny Saville and her first New York exhibit in eight years. On the other, “The Asia Series” by….. Bob Dylan. While I admire Bob Dylan in many ways, his work with a brush is not one of them. The fact that throngs of people kept asking where the Bob Dylan show was, while I stood with just a few others in the spectacle that was Jenny Saville’s exhibition really, well, annoyed me.
Few painters today deal with the human form, or flesh, like Jenny Saville. She zooms in on the mass that is the human body vs. focusing on how bodies engage with space in a given environment. There are tremendous figurative painters out there including Phillip Pearlstein and Marlene Dumas, but the flesh belongs to Jenny Saville, especially after the recent loss of Lucian Freud. Educators who spend time working from the figure with their students can benefit from considering Saville’s work. Between the way she implies form and utilizes color, especially a range of reds, viewers at Gagosian could almost be seen shaking off sucker punches. I know I was. Each of the huge paintings is like a concentrated storm in your line of vision.
Upon entering the gallery, I was confronted with one of Saville’s recent works inspired by Renaissance nativity portraits. Study for Pentimenti IV features a pregnant woman and a young child, repeating the two forms to create a rhythm that leads the eye quickly around and through the work. Perhaps one of my favorite pieces in the show, another large painting titled The Mothers, pictures a pregnant woman literally trying to hold two young children simultaneously- one is cradled close and another is literally slipping from her grasp. I kept returning to this work thinking about how many people must identify with this particular mother and the feeling of being completely overwhelmed.
Jenny Saville’s beautiful and straightforward exhibition is absolutely worth a visit for anyone even remotely interested in figurative painting through October 22nd. While you’re there you may be tempted, as I was, to explore the Bob Dylan show hoping that his work as a painter may come close to his dominance as a songwriter. But you’ll be left disappointed and probably mumbling to yourself, I warn you. If caught in this particular situation you can remedy the whiplash by retracing your steps and simply going back into the Saville show.