|Juncture by Jenny Saville|
Jenny SavilleUnder the skin
Jenny Saville's paintings are known for the mountains of flesh they reveal, but it is the neuroses bursting through that interest her, she tells Suzie Mackenzie
Saturday 22 October 2005 00.13 BST
In August 2003, on her way back to London from a holiday in Sicily, the artist Jenny Saville stopped off in the island's capital, Palermo, for what she intended to be a single day's sightseeing, having never visited the city before. It must have been like entering not so much a new world, as her own world - the world she has carried around in her head since she was a child and which she has forged into those monumental flesh paintings, her unidealised naked bodies, which erupt and leak at us, and force us into new habits of perception. What is this thing, the body, her paintings ask, when it is stripped bare, denuded of personality and context, this thing that seems so much a part of us, and which we try so hard to look after and yet which betrays us, decays from within, and which, when it leaves us, takes us with it?
by Jenny Saville
alermo, she says, seemed to her just like a vast mutant body, a body that doesn't belong to anyone or to any one moment in time. "A mysterious hybrid of a city. Here you see can see a 1950s public housing building abutting a Norman church. An Arab mosque next to a Catholic church." And, just like the body, it bears the scars of all its violent and tumultuous history.
Palermo is not one city but a whole accretion of cities, Saville says, layer upon layer of civilisations - the most conquered city in the world and yet a city in defiance of defeat. It is dirty, its streets are littered, it teems with traffic and noise, and yet you can step back from this, step right off the street and into, for instance, the contemplative calm of the now derelict 16th-century monastery Lo Spasimo, where a single Beckettian tree sprouts in the middle of a roofless nave, and feel a part of something outside yourself. Free yourself. "I am British, with all the melancholy, reserve, solid misery that implies," she says. In London, she is a contemporary artist, part of the art scene. "If Damien Hirst is having a show, or Rachel Whiteread, it can't help but be close to you." But in Palermo these bits of the identity loosen their perspective. "Here, I produce work much closer to myself. Here I can be as close to Rubens as I am to Tracey Emin."
She doesn't just love Palermo, Saville says: "Sometimes I hate it." But she made up her mind, that first day that she saw it, to bring herself and all her world here. On impulse she decided to buy an apartment, over a thousand square metres, on the second floor of a formerly magnificent but now crumbling 18th-century palazzo. Cracks in its fabric are supported by an improvised scaffolding. Windows are cemented over. She fought to get it. "I tracked down the owners, three sisters, and convinced them to let me have it." She still finds it odd that she owns it, "because I have never owned anything before". This now serves as her studio and she has been able to provide a studio there for her former boyfriend, Paul McPhail, too.
Taking me round its 21 rooms, a vast and mostly empty space, she is a bit like a lover, excitedly pointing out its secret mysteries. An 18th-century fresco: "This was concealed behind layers of paint. It took a year peeling it back layer by layer to expose just those few square inches." (And you realise that this is not a couple of years' work or even a lifetime's work - it is infinite.) That, she says, pointing to another revealed area, "is art nouveau. Beneath it are more of the earlier frescoes. It is hard to know where you stop. Do you just keep on going, peeling it back?" All her art is like this, a getting under the skin to the raw material of ourselves, a confrontation with the dynamics of exposure. Broken surfaces fascinate her - "always have". Her earliest memory is from when she was about four, being at a fairground on a merry-go-round, "on one of those golden old-fashioned horses", and seeing another little girl fall. "I remember the cut legs, the bloody wound, really bloody, between her legs, and that mix of excitement and worry. I kept going round, seeing snippets, and I couldn't wait till I got round again." Life, she says, is intensified by proximity to death. "That's your one certainty, that you are going to die."
What interests her is wherever the body breaks open - the genitalia - and, most particularly of course, the head, the face and all its openings. Her 2003 exhibition Migrants consisted of six paintings, three of them heads, all staring out at the viewer blankly, as if indifferent to their state. Gone are the morbid flesh tones of her early work; here the paint, a vibrant red and brown, is as charged as the images. Aperture, unusually, is a gruesome head of a man - puffy, one eye battered closed. Reverse and Reflective Flesh use her own image. Not as self-portraits: "I am not interested in portraits as such. I am not interested in the outward personality. I don't use the anatomy of my face because I like it, not at all. I use it because it brings out something from inside, a neurosis."
In Reverse, the head is placed on a mirror and shown sideways on, no longer the artist looking at her subject, but a gaze looking at herself. In various places the skin is punctured, scabby, as if breaking down. But it's the mouth that holds you, a pouting damson red. Reflective Flesh exposes the genitalia, luscious against the white of the flesh, open, nothing hidden, the artist lending her body as the object. It is a frightening image. "Not to me," she says. "It's because the nervousness of revealing is inherent that I'm interested in it - not in showing the world my genitalia. It is about being brave enough with myself to offer up that anxiety. I like my neuroses - they are my living sketchbook. I don't want to work them out."
She continues on around her studio, pulling out, pointing out things that were hidden, now revealed. Under a 1950s linoleum floor, the original terracotta tiles. In one dark corner she bends down, spits on her hands, and rubs away at the dust to reveal small patterns of ceramics detailing rural scenes. "They put these all over to remind them of their country homes." A stone bath, like a pharoah's sarcophagus or Rachel Whiteread's tomb-bath, sits in an otherwise vacant room so dark you have to adjust your vision to see it's there. Up a rickety ladder - "Be careful where you put your feet, it's not safe" - we look down on the curved domes of a roof that was once part of the external structure, but has now been covered by another, higher roof she plans to remove.
Some time in the future she will live as well as work here. There are plans, "a huge renovation project". Meanwhile, except for her painting space, it is void, an empty canvas. There is little furniture, just one stool - a packing crate has to be upturned as a chair for me to sit on. And in a far room a single bed sits tightly tucked up, its sheets and blankets smoothed to a perfect plane. Its smallness reminds me of a child's bed, its packed neatness of an institution. She doesn't sleep here often, Saville explains. Most often she will go back to her small apartment near the cathedral. Later, as I leave, she points to one of the vast carved stone supports at the top of the marble staircase. When things are going badly with her work, she tells me, she comes here, curls up in one of these immense ripples of stone, curved like a woman's breast, and waits for the dawn to break.
Jenny Saville is odd, though she doesn't look it. She is petite - nothing like the giantesses of her paintings, in which she was her own model - and pretty even with no make-up and long hair scraped back. But she says she felt odd as a child: "I've only come to recognise the importance of that quite recently. I never used to think about it." Her parents were both educators - her mother a primary school teacher, her father a county council director of education - people entrusted with socialising young things. According to Saville, they couldn't do much with her. "I always found it difficult just to be. I had to have a project. I didn't like family meals, that stuff. I preferred to go into my room with a sandwich. Family was a noise, away from me."
Her father's work meant that they moved often; there was never a house she called home, though all of the houses they inhabited were big enough for each of the four children to have a room of their own. "Making things in my square room. That was the world that I carried, and it's still the same. Here, or America, or London, I carry my space." Everything around her could change: "The environment changed, the references changed, people's accents, the physicality of the landscape. I carried images around with me even then. They were my constant."
As she has got older, she has recognised that it is this more than anything that has shaped her vision. "Other people I've talked to had the same bedroom all their childhood." And she says with unconcealed yearning, "To me that's magical. That your journey as a child would be within the same four walls. I never had that level of stability." Like her paintings, hers was a world in limbo, with no continuous narrative except the narrative she imposed herself.
Most particularly, her schools would change and with each new class she learned to measure her distance with the objective scrutiny of the scientist. She saw that children devolved into types and she became very good at spotting them: "the bully", or the ones she could be friends with. "Wherever I went, I would recognise certain human characteristics. It was an instinct and a survival tactic." Asked to describe herself as she was at this time, she says: "In a classroom, me an isolated figure, others belonging, I didn't. Observing mannerisms, body language. People eating, laughing, I found that violent." Was she fat as a child? "Not particularly, not that would have singled me out. I have been chunky." Did it disturb her? "I used it to turn it into work."
She attributes the early "fascination with fat" to sitting on the floor watching her piano teacher. "From below she had these big, thick thighs, a thick tweed skirt and tights, and I'd spend the whole time looking at the way her thighs never parted and how the flesh would rub against the tights." People sometimes observe that the experience of looking at one of the big early Savilles, with their dramatic cropping and foreshortening, is a bit like a child confronting a grown-up. A mix of awe and intimacy. "I wanted both in those pictures. A large female body has a power, it occupies a physical space, yet there's an anxiety about it. It has to be hidden." So a part of it, she says, was a search for intimacy, "as if being in a mother's arms". And part of it was discomfort, "the anxiety that comes from living with flesh".
She speaks little about her parents except to say that she is not particularly close to them now. I ask her if she looks like her mother, Judith, and she gives this strange reply: "Not really. My gums are quite similar, the coloration, the length of the gums." Her parents didn't want her to be an artist. "They were worried, as most parents would be. They would have preferred a more conventional academic route. They felt the life of an artist was too precarious." You could see a certain precariousness in the early pictures for which she modelled herself, Propped, Prop, Untitled - the naked fat body perched on a stool, the fat itself a narrative of imbalance.
In 1988, aged 18, she went to Glasgow School of Art, which she describes in some ways as a homecoming: "People with like-minded interests, all obsessed, a total work ethic." She had no grant and worked as a waitress to support herself and pay for a separate studio. "Art in school" - by which she means socialised art, taught art - and "art at home" were always separate. "When I was little, I'd go to school and be told what to do. And I'd do it, but it always annoyed me." For her, art was always made apart, in the confines of her square room.
It was in this period, the late 80s, that Charles Saatchi started buying the work of unknown young artists barely out of college, who would come together at the 1997 Sensation show at the Royal Academy. Saville's work he saw first in 1991 on the cover of a magazine. "Through that he tracked down the buyers of Branded and Propped, and bought them. He then gave me a commission to make a body of work, all of which he bought. I just closed my door and worked for 18 months."
People say a lot of things about Saatchi, she says, "but what he did for me was amazing. I didn't have lots of money. I make big paintings, I couldn't afford to invest the time or money. Who would show them, let alone buy them?" Now, if she wanted to make a 21ft-long triptych, she could. "Charles was like, 'Whatever you want, whatever is your dream, do it.' Things I'd wanted to do for ages, I could do. And it made me a bigger artist." He never interfered. "I think I sent him a couple of photos a couple of times. And then one day a van came and took them all away." You have to "do homage" to Saatchi for this, she says: "The serious way he displayed contemporary art, we hadn't seen that in Britain before."
The form her homage took was that when he hung her painting Shift upside down at Sensation, she didn't complain.
She began with the body for all sorts of reasons. "The art I like concentrates on the body. I don't have a feel for Poussin, but for Courbet, Velásquez - artists who get to the flesh. Visceral artists - Bacon, Freud. And de Kooning, of course. He's really my man. He doesn't depict anything, yet it's more than representation, it's about the meaning of existence and pushing the medium of paint."
And she was a child of her time. Born in 1970, she came of age in the 1980s: "Everyone was obsessed with the body - it was all about dieting, gym, the body beautiful. Pornography, Aids were the big debates." She was influenced by feminism. "As a child I'd look through art books and there were no women artists. Of course, you start to ask why not." And: "Could I make a painting of a nude in my own voice? It's such a male-laden art, so historically weighted. The way women were depicted didn't feel like mine, too cute. I wasn't interested in admired or idealised beauty."
Females, as she says, are used to being looked at: "I don't like to be the one just looking or just looked at. I want both roles." Taking herself as her own model, her exaggerated nudes point up, with an agonising frankness, the disparity between the way women are perceived and the way that they feel about their bodies. Their massive bodies look diseased, half alive, half dead, the skin erupting in places as if cracking under the strain of having to contain so much fat, so much anxiety. In Branded, she inscribed on the flesh adjectives often used to describe women: "supportive" is scratched across one breast, "irrational" across the other; "delicate" across the midriff.
Propped has, etched into the paint, indecipherable words by the French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, whom Saville studied on a sabbatical in America. There was "immense conviction" in making these pictures, she says, and an element of self-loathing. "There is in everybody. We are taught to judge ourselves from a very young age, to groom ourselves." And this creates a neurosis for women, she says. "You see this dichotomy in women's magazines all the time: an article on breast cancer - empowering; an article on skin products that make you look younger - neurotic."
She says that feminism interests her less now. "I was never that polemical. That feels like a conversation I was having with myself then. I'm not drawn to that kind of admired beauty but I can't say if it is because I am a woman or because my instinct visually is not that way."
More influential, more enduring in her work, is the experience of sitting in on plastic surgery operations. You realise something about the flesh, she says, when you see a surgeon put his hand through a woman's breast. Or smell the burning of a facial peel. You realise that the flesh is everything. "It's all things. Ugly, beautiful, repulsive, compelling, anxious, neurotic, dead, alive." And it is nothing. "Eventually we expel ourselves. We rust away. Our own body rejects us. I don't find that tragic."
She marked this departure with Host (2000) and Suspension (2003), both paintings of pig carcasses, which she thinks of as "landscapes of the body" - a different kind of realism, not human yet horribly reminiscent of the human form. More recently she has extended this distancing technique with Passage (2004) a painting of a transsexual, neither male nor female. It is a dramatic confrontation with the body as artificial construct. "It is like a modern architecture of the body. Penis and breasts all at the same time. It's electric, it's like wow! To see something in a way you have not looked at it before."
Saville took this idea of the mutation of the flesh and translated it into a series of photographs, Closed Contact, which she made with her friend the photographer Glen Luchford, her only collaborative work. Pressing her body on to a plane of Perspex, which he photographed from beneath, she reduced her flesh simply to volume, manipulated and reproduced on a flat surface. The images it made she could barely recognise. "My eye there looks like the eye of a bull." She began with herself: "I use myself less now." Her paintings have become a movement away from the self - to something self-less.
It is true that there is something chilling about this level of detachment. All around her studio there are images of torture, Abu Ghraib, of dissections, mutilations. Words are smudged on the walls. Scrape. Smear. She works sometimes from newspaper cuttings. Pause shows a moaning half-clothed woman running from a suicide bomb in Israel and seemingly falling into a void of grey paint. Her eyes are rolled back, her mouth slack; she is barely human in her abandonment. Hands hold her - but to help her or restrain her, we don't know.
What influence has 9/11 had on her work? "I collected lots of images of it. It is the visual event of my lifetime... It was so poetic... a contemporary Inferno. I felt this is the first thing I've seen in my life that is big and grand and belongs to me. There's a kick to it. It's real and violent and right there. It chills you and at the same time it's exciting." There is, however terrible, an unblinking honesty in this.
It is twilight, grey, silvery, shadowy. We can't see each other any more. Her voice floats and echoes. Behind us the weight of all those empty rooms stretches out. Beneath us the rest of Palermo is heading for its evening meal. Against one of the studio walls is the study for a recent painting, Stare. Again from a newspaper cutting, it is a picture of a young girl, one side of her face a large birthmark. Saville is animated as she talks of the picture. How you can charge a painting, create tension. The sense of the blood underneath the skin, how the stain becomes confused with the shadow of the nose. What she calls the pathology of painting. "I have moved from the anatomy of the body to the anatomy of paint," she says. "That is how I see it. Spaces within the body of the paint are what interest me now."
Paint, she says, is her language, the way she communicates - and everything else, everything else, takes second place. She can't see herself having children. "I dunno really. I look at my brother and he has a wife, children, holidays. I don't recognise myself in that at all. I wouldn't want it any other way. My life is subservient to painting - I can't find a substitute for it in the world."