Rendered in charcoal gathered from the burnt remains of the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building, Ashes (2016-17) is a drawing of both impressive solidity and beguiling weightlessness that perfectly demonstrates Jenny Saville’s mastery over the human form. Saville studied at Glasgow, and the work’s tragic origins bestow it a with a distinct poignancy that she references in the title; both the residual presence of death and destruction, as well as the substance that mystically gives rise to the phoenix, this dual sense of ash seems to be registered in the work’s atmosphere, in which the material and immaterial seem to ambiguously coalesce. At the centre of the drawing is the naked body of a woman, reclining on the floor in a typical Saville pose: as her arms are pulled awkwardly behind her head and her legs folded uncomfortably, the woman’s torso, sketched with fleshy immediacy, seems to be pushed out towards the viewer. Even without her virtuosic handling of oil paints and signature flesh tones, Saville’s skill as a draughtswoman is immediately apparent; she represents with exceptional deftness the sense of physical exertion latent in the woman’s pose, her straining muscles captured in a moment of suspended tension that gives the picture both a palpable physicality, as well as leaving it feeling interrupted or unresolved. Around the body, a cloud of vigorous lines and smudges collects, pooling into a dark band that obscures the woman’s face; as it hovers and vibrates in the air, this cloud both conceals the woman, stripping her of her identity, and yet at the same time illuminates her, throwing up shadowy, subconscious fragments of the human form – a face emerges behind the woman’s head, and a bent arm, delicately shaped, dissolves into the air. We are left wondering whether these forms are closer to nightmares, fantasies or something altogether harder to define.
After her senior show at Glasgow was bought in its entirety by Charles Saatchi in 1992, Saville was thrust into the vanguard of the Young British Artists, with Saatchi’s 1994 Young British Artists III exhibition featuring Saville’s Plan as its centrepiece. Since then she has gone on to establish herself as one of the leading figurative painters working today, and an heir apparent to her hero Francis Bacon. Here in Ashes, the ease with which the figure’s solid, fleshy form seems to evaporate into airier, non-figurative lines and shadows reflect the influence of Bacon, as does the clearly defined, yet strangely neutral room she finds herself in. Yet the psychic arena of Saville’s frame is very different to Bacon’s. For Saville, the body is less the site of an acutely realised anguish or violence than it is a physical, neutral space to be accepted in itself, communicating both beauty and ugliness, hope and fear.