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June 22 2012

This week's new exhibitions

Jenny Saville, Oxford

Jenny Saville's monumental paintings of flesh in the raw have made her one of Britain's best-known artists. Her women's engorged bellies, swollen breasts and thighs, shouting of anguished self-image in bloody gobs of pigment, have garnered her a public following to rival the approval heaped on her by critics. Although she emerged as an almost fully formed star when Saatchi first exhibited her work in the early 1990s, this is her first big public gallery show in her home country. It traces her development as a painter over the course of two decades, from the famed images of unruly, tormented but defiant female flesh, to recent works that see her striking out in fresh directions. New drawings have taken Leonardo's cartoon of The Virgin and Child with St Ann and St John the Baptist, for inspiration. In place of its vision of stoic motherhood, Saville's images are a hectic whirl of energy.

Modern Art Oxford and The Ashmolean Museum Of Art & Archeology, to 26 Sep

Skye Sherwin

Mark Wallinger, Gateshead

A film shows three builders erecting scaffolding on a beach. The camera frames the geometric structure set against the shingle and the background horizon. The builders' white T-shirts interweave with the metallic grey of steel rods that frame a grey-blue sea and sky. The Construction Site receives its UK premiere in this show of Wallinger's intriguing work. There's something about the way Wallinger composes apparent futilities with such systematic earnestness that is in itself convincing. Another classic here, titled 10000000000000000, is of exactly 65,536 (the decimal form of the title's binary number) stones on a chess grid, a reflection of a superperfect number.

BALTIC, to 14 Oct

Robert Clark

Diane Arbus, London

Whether photographing a giant or schoolgirls, Diane Arbus had a genius for revealing her subjects' outre side. The 32 photos here focus on modern tribes, exploring the idea that dressing up or getting into disguise can make you freer to be yourself. It's easy to see her portraits of celebrity lookalikes as an influence on an artist such as Gillian Wearing. There's plenty of strange glamour, from puckish, bare-chested youths in makeup to society dames with matching pillbox hats and elegantly held cigarettes. Arbus probes further, however. Her image of a blind couple, huddled in one another's arms and dwarfed by their bed, or Russian midgets in a sombre living room, speak of tribal tendencies as necessary armour in a tough world.

Timothy Taylor, W1, Tue to 17 Aug


Stanya Kahn, Manchester

Stanya Kahn comes from Los Angeles and it shows. Her videos are all self-consciously faked, every emotion and thought acted up and played out. But you're reminded of the camera's ubiquitous presence; the costumes are tatty and the props throwaway. Kahn navigates this slapstick theatre of the absurd with consummate self-deprecating humour. In Lookin' Good, Feelin' Good she roams the streets dressed as a giant foam penis. For It's Cool, I'm Good she explores LA wrapped in bandages like an escaped hospital patient. In true LA style, the words Cool and Good are taken to mean the opposite of their conventional definitions.

Cornerhouse, to 16 Sep


Madge Gill, London

Madge Gill is one of outsider art's most fascinating figures. A Victorian spiritualist, she began obsessively creating drawings guided by a spirit known as Myrninerest, whose "signature" was often seen in the corner. The repetitive intricacy of her work is tireless: dense squares, cross-hatching and swirling forms, from which spooky, feminine faces peer. Most of Gill's vast output rarely leaves its Newham archive; here Bow Arts redresses the balance with the first of a trio of 10-week shows at the Nunnery.

The Nunnery, E3, to 23 Aug


Erwin Wurm, Liverpool

A grown man entertains himself in private by stuffing red and blue marker pens up each nostril. He grips two photo-film canisters in his clenched eye sockets and, as a finishing touch, his mouth is gagged by holding a stapler like some kind of robotic beak. If all this weren't loony enough, he takes a photograph of the whole grotesque affair and presents the image as a work of art. This is just one of Erwin Wurm's One Minute Sculptures, a series of photo-artwork-performances that he's been working on assiduously since the late 1990s. Other of the 18 works exhibited here show a prone figure half buried by a suitcase and another figure wearing a cardboard box as a regulation uniform. The surprising thing with Wurm is that such dada daftness doesn't look just tiresomely wacky, like so many drunken pranks. Delightfully, it's somehow very sophisticated cultural mischief.

Open Eye Gallery, to 2 Sep


Andrew Kötting & Iain Sinclair, London

Legacy has become the Olympics buzzword, applied before the fact, as if you could reverse time, and projected on to the future. Psychogeographer writer Ian Sinclair and artist-filmmaker Andrew Kötting's latest project sends up the vacuous cultural commissions taking legacy's name in vain to bulldozer so-called wastelands rich with people's history. Exploring the lesser-celebrated side of Britain, last year they took to Blighty's waterways in a swan-shaped pedalo. Their pedal-powered odyssey from Hastings to Hackney is by turns tragi-comic and quietly radical, lit up by folk songs and locals' stories. The results can be seen now in an installation of film, photos and artefacts, to be released in movie form next month.

Dilston Grove, SE16, Wed to 29 Jul

SS © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Exhibitionist: the week's art shows in pictures

From monumental flesh paintings in Oxford to portraits of celebrity lookalikes in London, find out what's happening in art around the country

Jenny Saville's first UK solo show opens – but mind the wet paint

Oxford exhibition includes the mountainous fleshy nudes she became known for in the 1990s, as well as days-old new work

It will astonish many people that Jenny Saville is opening her first solo show in a British public gallery, but the artist does not feeling upset or wronged.

"I don't have a complaint about not being fashionable, I don't feel I've been ignored. It's out of choice that I haven't shown in the UK," she said as she put the final touches to an exhibition at Modern Art Oxford.

The show includes the mountainous fleshy nudes she became known for in the 1990s right up to new work so fresh that on Friday it was still wet. "I finished it at 10am yesterday," she said, pointing to her most recent work. "I just hope people don't lean against it."

Saville was one of the YBAs, one of many British artists helped by Charles Saatchi exhibiting in his Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997. Since then she has built up an international reputation showing across Europe and in the US, yet no British museum show.

"It is incredible isn't it," said Modern Art Oxford's director, Michael Stanley. "But audiences who come here will feel they know her work because you would have seen so many images of it in different ways."

The lack of shows is partly down to Saville and partly down to her work not always being flavour of the month in certain art circles. "She's had a dogged determination and interest in figuration," said Stanley. "It has not been fashionable at all, especially in painting. This show is important because it shows what an incredible painter and draughtsman she is."

It is also down to her not producing a huge amount of work ("I'm slow," she said) and wanting to build a reputation in the US. "I wanted to see if I could stand up in that environment and I got the opportunity to do it, which was thrilling."

The time felt right for a UK show, especially in Oxford where she has her studio. "The YBA thing has calmed down a bit here and there's a bit of space and distance from that, so I feel it is the right time to show in this country and this is a beautiful museum with wonderful daylight."

Almost all of the loans are from private collections and they include enormous works such as the 16ft-wide Fulcrum from the late 1990s. "I used to call it the bitch," Saville said. "I look at it now and think no wonder it took me two years."

Two of Saville's recent works will be found 10 minutes away from the gallery in the Italian Renaissance room of Oxford's Ashmolean. Sandwiched between works by Veronese and Titian's The Triumph of Love is a Saville drawing inspired by Leonardo's The Burlington House Cartoon in the National Gallery.

"It is amazing," she said. "I was daunted by it. To show directly in a dialogue with old masters is so rare, normally the best you get is your painting reproduction next to their painting reproduction, but this is a direct relationship and it is thrilling. I'm really grateful to the Ashmolean for taking that jump."

• Jenny Saville is at Modern Art Oxford and in Room 43 of the Ashmolean from 23 June to 16 September. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 09 2012

Jenny Saville's work - in pictures

Jenny Saville's disturbingly massive nudes made her a sensation among Young British Artists. Yet, for a painter regularly described as the heir to Lucian Freud, it has taken a surprisingly long time to be given a solo show in the UK

Jenny Saville: 'I want to be a painter of modern life, and modern bodies'

Jenny Saville's nudes are firmly in the vein of Lucian Freud, yet only now is she having her first major British solo show
Jenny Saville's work - in pictures

I have a low-level dread of artists' studios, which tend to be full to overflowing with the (to me) highly distressing detritus of creativity: encrusted paint; cruelly abandoned canvases; ghostly dustsheets. But I find that I can just about cope with Jenny Saville's work space, which is in a shabby office building in Oxford, owned by Pembroke College.

For one thing, its scale works against claustrophobia; though she has had to remove ceiling tiles in a few places, the better to accommodate the taller of her paintings, it is nevertheless as big as a small supermarket. For another, it is divided, albeit haphazardly, into zones – broken-backed art books here, shrunken tubes of paint there – with a few feet of clear floor between. As we settle down with our mugs of Earl Grey tea, the spring rain fizzing against the windows, the feeling is almost – if not quite – cosy.

Only then, out of the corner of my eye, I see it. A portrait: a woman, her neck at a difficult angle, her head tipped back, her unseeing eyes a pair of cloudy marbles (I know without being told that the model who sat for this work is blind). Now I'm not so cosy. The trick of the painting, the reason it is so hard to pull one's gaze from it, lies with the way it captures its subject's extrasensory watchfulness. She is sightless, and yet you feel, somehow, that she sees right into you. Art critics, anxious to emphasise the resonance or beauty of a particular work, have a tendency to exaggerate. They will tell you, for instance, that a canvas seems almost to vibrate, such is its power. But this painting moves well beyond vibration. No superlative I can think of seems to do it justice. It's uncanny. If I heard its subject softly breathing, I would hardly be surprised.

A painting similar to this one – I find out much later that the girl in question is called Rosetta; she lives in Naples, and was so determined not to be on the receiving end of pity she interviewed Saville at length before agreeing to sit for her – will star in the forthcoming retrospective of Saville's work at Modern Art Oxford, the artist's first solo show in a British public gallery. (It tells you a lot about contemporary art – its whims and its desires, its peculiar snobberies and its deranged hierarchy – that Damien Hirst, whose work appeared alongside Saville's at the Royal Academy's Sensation show in 1997, is having his first solo public gallery show at the rather more grand Tate Modern; but we will come back to him.) Will Rosetta, part of Saville's Stare series, have the same effect in its pristine galleries? Almost certainly, though she will also have competition. Saville's work – she remains best known for her voluminous and unsparing early nudes – is nothing if not startling.

"There's a painting called Fulcrum," she says. "I used to call it The Bitch when I was making it, because it was so difficult to move about. But when I saw it again [recently], even I was shocked by how big it is." She shakes her head, mournfully. "I'm sort of impressed that I once had that sort of energy. The drive I must have had. I can't believe I was only 21. That's so young, and yet I was so determinedly serious about making art." Her voice runs on. "It's cathartic, too, though, seeing these paintings again. When you're in your studio, you've got so much work around you, you don't always see an individual piece for what it is. You think: 'Oh, so that's what I was doing.' Not that I can say I'm hugely looking forward to it [the opening]. I mostly see failings in the work – which is normal, isn't it?"

Has her confidence grown in the years since Sensation? "No, not at all. The older you get, the more doubtful you become, though I mean that in a good way. It's like being an athlete. You get quite fit on your toes when you're really pushing. But then you finish a piece, and you have to start all over again. On the other hand, I don't have anything like the traumas I used to have, throwing paintbrushes or whatever. I used only to work on one piece at a time, and that's where the trauma came. Now I move between paintings. When I start getting a bit dogmatic, I switch."

I look around the studio. From where I'm sitting, I can see no fewer than six canvases carefully arranged against the wall (not Rosetta, though; I have my back to her, so I can concentrate). Are these all works in progress? "Most of them, yes." She eyes them, warily. "It is odd to be showing in Britain. I've been shown a lot in America; that's my favourite place to show. We're quite conceptually driven in Britain. There's less guilt about being a painter over there."

Does she feel guilty? Surely not. People have talked of her, reverentially, as the heir to Lucian Freud pretty much since she left art school. "No, I don't. Not at all. Painting is my natural language. I feel in my own universe when I'm painting. But, in Britain, there has been a drive in art schools to describe and to rationalise what it is that you're making, and that is a death knell to painting. Painting doesn't operate like that. It works on all the irrational things. If you stand in front of Willem de Kooning's Woman, I, you can't unravel with words how that works on you. In America, painting is embraced, perhaps because one of the last great moments of painting was in New York, with de Kooning and Pollock."

She hesitates. "I'm not anti conceptual art. I don't think painting must be revived, exactly. Art reflects life, and our lives are full of algorithms, so a lot of people are going to want to make art that's like an algorithm. But my language is painting, and painting is the opposite of that. There's something primal about it. It's innate, the need to make marks. That's why, when you're a child, you scribble."

Jenny Saville was born in Cambridge in 1970, one of four children. She knew early on that she wanted to be an artist. "I was conscious of it as an idea from about the age of seven," she says. Her parents were both in education and, when it came to creativity, were encouraging. "We had this big old house, and in a corridor downstairs, there was this weird cupboard. I kept nosying around it, and eventually my mother gave it to me: it became my first studio, and no one else was allowed in. I would wake up every morning, and I just couldn't wait to get in that room, because I always had something on the go."

Later, she was encouraged by her uncle, an art historian, to whom she remains close (he lives near her studio in Oxford; they like to eat lunch together, and talk about Prussian blue). "When I was about 11, he gave me a section of hedge, and told me to observe it for a whole year. So I did, and I learnt such a lot about how nature shifts, and the necessity to really look."

She sees my face. "It wasn't weird at the time! It's only weird when I tell other people. I'm so grateful to him. Later on, he took me to Venice, and it wasn't just that he said this is Titian, and this is Tintoretto, or whatever. At six o'clock one morning, we went to draw at the fish market at the Rialto bridge. Great art wasn't something far away; it was part of life. We would go and drink in the same bar Rembrandt drank in; it was as fundamental as that in terms of the working life of the artist. All this helped me so much. I never questioned my ambition. I never thought: I'm a girl, I can't do this. It was only when I got to art school that I realised that the great artists of the past were not women. I had a sort of epiphany in the library: where are all the women? Only then, as the truth dawned, did I start to feel pissed off."

She went to Glasgow School of Art, an institution that instilled in her an "amazing" work ethic, and which set great store by life drawings; students had to produce 36 such sketches a term, and dedicate the hours between 7pm and 9pm every day to working with a model, even if their interests lay with abstract art.

Saville believes this gave her a kind of freedom. "Picasso wouldn't be Picasso without his academic training. That's why he nails it. The wildest distortions stand up, even if they're crazy. The point is that destruction is fundamental to the process; without it, you never get anywhere interesting. But fundamental to that is knowing what you can excavate from the destruction."

At Glasgow, she won every award going, among them a six-month scholarship to Cincinnati University, where she was captivated – if this is the right word – by the sight of obese women at shopping malls. It was these women who inspired her 1992 graduate show and who, in their turn, caught the eye of the collector Charles Saatchi – though her interest in flesh was hardly a new thing. As a little girl, she found the sight of liver turning from puce to grey-green in the pan "thrilling". She remembers, too, sitting on the floor, aged about six, and looking up at her piano teacher's thighs under her tweed skirt; they rubbed together as she played. "I was fascinated by the way her two breasts would become one, the way her fat moved, the way it hung on the back of her arms."

After tracking down and buying up the work already sold at her degree show – this was how he came by two of her most famous paintings, Branded and Propped – Saatchi then commissioned her to spend two years working on pieces to be shown at his own gallery in Young British Artists III.

"I think everyone has their squabbles with Charles," she says, now. "That's the nature of the situation. But the marriage of a new generation of artists from all kinds of backgrounds with this man who wasn't from the establishment… You have to understand that he energised a whole generation, and he engaged Britain in contemporary art. He had the money, and he said: make whatever you want.

"I was only 22; it was a dream come true. I can't say anything bad about Charles because I'm so glad he was there. Suddenly I didn't have to wait until I was 45 to be at a certain gallery. I'm 42, and I'm still younger than de Kooning was when he had his first show. It's incredible how much has changed in 20 years, and quite a lot of that is down to Charles. When I graduated I would have been hard pressed to think of a single woman who showed in a museum, and now women are directors, curators…" Her voice trails off. She can't go on, I think, because the unavoidable truth is that there are still relatively few women artists who are deemed worthy of museum exhibitions.

Am I right? She doesn't answer, or not directly. "When my show opened at the Saatchi gallery, I met David Sylvester [the art critic, who died in 2001] at the door. In the end, we became great friends. But on that day, he said: 'I always thought women couldn't be painters.' Later, I asked him why, and he said: 'I don't know. That's just the way it has always been. That's how it is.' He was right, but I think it's beginning to shift, now. Apart from anything else, there's been a sea change in what we consider to be the canon. Tracey Emin's quilts are art, whereas in the Sixties, they would have been deemed to be craft."

To coincide with her retrospective, Saville will be putting two pieces in the Renaissance gallery at the Ashmolean Museum. "I was standing there the other day, and it's full of nude women all painted by men. I'm the first woman to show in the room, which is great, but it's also obscene." She pauses. "Actually, it's not even obscene. It's just… silly."

In 1994 Saville returned to the US to observe operations at the clinic of a New York plastic surgeon. She then painted women with the surgeon's black markings on the contours of their bodies, so that they resembled living, breathing dartboards. This led in turn to Closed Contact, a series of photographs by the fashion photographer, Glen Luchford, of Saville's naked body pressed against Perspex and shot from below (Saville fattened herself up for this, the better that her flesh appear squashed and distorted). The subtext of this work is, of course, familiar now. But it wasn't at the time.

"When I made Plan [showing the lines drawn on a woman's body to designate where liposuction would be performed], I was forever explaining what liposuction was. It seemed so violent then. These days, I doubt there's anyone in the western world who doesn't know what liposuction is. Surgery was a minority sport; now that notion of hybridity is everywhere. There's almost a new race: the plastic surgery race."

These experiences, however, have cast a long shadow. She is still interested in the idea that many people hold fast to a notion that their natural self isn't the "real" them, and her work continues to be preoccupied by what she calls a sense of in-betweenness. "That's why transsexuals and hermaphrodites have become interesting to me. I want to be a painter of modern life, and modern bodies, those that emulate contemporary life, they're what I find most interesting."

More recently, she has been inspired by motherhood (she has two small children). "People told me [before I had children] that I wouldn't be able to engage with my work in the same way once they were born." Which people? Were they women? "No!" She laughs. "They were guys. Anyway, they were wrong. I enjoy the work 10 times more now. It's still a necessity to me, something I have to do. But I'm more carefree. Partly, it's watching them – the total freedom they have, scribbling across paper, the way they paint without any need for form. I thought: I fancy a bit of that myself."

Since they were born, she has produced a series of drawings, Reproduction, which nod to nativity sketches by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo but are informed by her own experiences – a friend photographed her as she gave birth – so that mother and child are viscerally connected rather than soppily idealised. (Just so there is no misunderstanding, Saville is naked in these drawings, and the baby in her arms is lain on a belly swollen with a child yet to be born.)

Before I leave, we walk the studio, looking at the work that is still in progress (Saville is remarkably cool about this; only one canvas is turned to the wall to protect it from my gaze). "In these pieces, I'm trying to get simultaneous realities to exist in the same image," she says. "The contradiction of a drawing on top of a drawing replicates the slippage we have between the real world and the screen world. But it's about the memory of pictures, too. I'm directly referencing other artists: Manet, Titian, Picasso, Giorgione." If she has any sense of the daring involved in this – the sheer chutzpah of it – she isn't letting on. How does she know when something is finished? "When it starts to breathe, then I'm on the home straight."

We talk, too, about other people's work. She loved both Gerhard Richter at Tate Modern and Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery. "It's sad he [Freud] is not going to make any more paintings," she says. "But I'm trying to work out whether he can be seen as a great artist, or whether he is a great portrait painter. I mean, why shouldn't he be a great artist? But then you look at Richter, and you wonder. Richter is definitely a great artist in the fullest sense of the word."

What about Damien Hirst? Has she seen his show yet? "No, but I will." I don't ask her what she thinks about him, but she tells me all the same, in her straightforward way. "I can tell you exactly the moment my feelings about him changed," she says. "He was the most brilliant artist right up until the time [2006] when he did this homage to Bacon at the Gagosian [A Thousand Years & Triptychs]. He did these vitrines, which I felt were dreadful. His work has become much more about the mechanisms of the art world than the art itself, and that must be quite a lonely planet for Damien to exist on. It's as if he has beaten his own horse. It's like the soul has gone."

Will this ever happen to her? At the start of the 21st century, she was, after all, one of the most expensive contemporary artists in the world. But, no. Of course it won't. Her life is here, in the studio. Even as we talk, and she is good talker, I can feel a part of her itching to get back to work. "I like all the bits up to hanging a show, and then I disengage," she says. "I don't even know my own collectors. All the razzmatazz: the market, the auctions. I'm quite immune to it. I know it's part of the process. But when you get in the studio, none of that will help you to make a better painting." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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