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Back to Paint--Thanks to Photos

Jenny Saville examined the body beautiful in prints that reaffirmed her belief in brushwork.


Jenny Saville, 31, is one of Britain's young art superstars, applauded for her wall-sized paintings of monumentally nude women.

Media accounts lend her career a fairy-tale simplicity. Born in Cambridge, England, the daughter of educators, she was discovered by influential art collector Charles Saatchi in 1992, shortly after she graduated from Glasgow School of Art. He commissioned her to paint an entire show for his London museum in 1994.

Saville then accepted a scholarship from a group of American collectors, who arranged for her to make photographs of women in the process of having cosmetic surgery in the office of a prominent New York surgeon. When she returned to England in 1995, the experience inspired her to do a project with a filmmaker and an award-winning fashion photographer who did the 1997 Prada campaign. The results are nude self-portraits, created with Luchford's help, that go on view at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills this week.

Although Saville is not fat, she pressed her body against glass to create a voluptuous effect. The photographs were printed on the scale of large paintings, some more than 6 feet tall.

"The photographic experience reinstalled my belief in painting," she later said. She subsequently shifted the emphasis to the surface of the canvas to generate more visceral impact. "Instead of using paint to illustrate an idea, I want to make you feel your own body.... I am trying to make paint behave in the way flesh behaves."

She also says that her painting is not so much a critique of the body-obsessed culture as a demonstration of her affection for the painting of the Old Masters. "I've always loved how Velazquez and Rembrandt could make something splendid out of something very ordinary," she once said.

In 1997, she had her first commercial exhibition. At the Gagosian Gallery in New York City, her paintings were sold out before the show opened--at prices of $100,000 to $150,000. Around the same time, her paintings were included in "Sensation," the Saatchi-sponsored exhibition that embroiled the Brooklyn Museum of Art in controversy over art considered to be sacrilegious or overly sexual. Her nudes, however, seemed tame compared with much of the work lambasted by then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Saville lives and works in her London studio with Paul McPhair, a figurative painter who has been her companion since their student days. She stopped in New York to see the Alberto Giacometti retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art before coming to Los Angeles for her show.

Question: Did you find a special connection between your work and the work of Giacometti?

Answer: The paintings stuck with me because I'm just finishing a painting of [English art critic] David Sylvester. I've been painting it for 18 months. Giacometti's portrait of him is from 1960. It is interesting because Giacometti's approach is so different from mine. I painted him from photographs, and though David is dead now, I started it when he was alive.

It is difficult to work on the [artistic] transformation of someone's flesh who was alive at one point and now is dead. It is different from Giacometti, where you can see the intensity of the mark-making over and over, [his] trying to heighten the reality.

Q: But did you find any connection in the fact that you both work from the human figure?

A: I think the difference is that I am so interested in the flesh, in the manipulative textures of [paint]. Giacometti was more interested in the structure and form.

Q: With such strong accolades for your paintings, why did you detour to make these photographs back in 1995?

A: I didn't make a conscious decision to do [them]. I was in New York to take photographs of cosmetic surgery. I would see the surgeon with his fist inside a breast for implant surgery, a real manipulation and distortion of the body in search of some sort of beauty. I became interested in what happened in the process. At the same time, I took photographs of my own body pressed against glass to make some paintings closely related to the surgery. I was having problems with the lighting and reflections, and Glen offered to come sort them out for me. That is when I saw the possibility of the photographs themselves. We didn't have the intention of doing a project together, it just grew. We did four sessions over an 18-month period.

Q: Did you choose Luchford because of his background in fashion photography?

A: We talked about it. I was interested in fashion shoots, how they create the reality that makes up beauty. We had lots of discussions of how clothes are pinned back to accent the body. He was interested in the way I approach making art, and I was interested in how he made these slick images to sell an ideal.

Q: How did you manage to get yourself smashed onto the glass?

A: I paint [standing] on scaffolding, so I took floor off of it and put plexiglass where floor was. Gravity pulled my flesh downward and if I held the edge of the glass I could slide my body across it.

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