‘With the transvestite I was searching for a body that was between genders. I had explored that idea a little in Matrix. The idea of a floating gender that is not fixed… I was looking for a kind of contemporary architecture of the body. I wanted to paint a visual passage through gender - a sort of gender landscape’ (J. Saville, quoted in S. Schama, ‘Interview with Jenny Saville’, Jenny Saville, New York 2005, p. 126).
‘I want the feeling that you don’t only command the piece of work, the piece of work also commands you’(J. Saville, quoted in M. Gayford, ‘A Conversation with Jenny Saville’, in Jenny Saville Territories, exh. cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, 1999, p. 31).
‘Bodies that confront perceptions of beauty and femininity interest me. I’m painting Del LaGrace Volcano at the moment- an intersex person who’s been taking testosterone for three-and-a-half years. Del’s body fascinates me as it represents a human form proceeding through a self-initiated process of body transition. He/she is a mutational body with gender defying body parts. You want to push Del’s body into a catergory of male or female but can’t – he/she is in a process of becoming’
(J. Saville, quoted in M. Gayford, ‘A Conversation with Jenny Saville’, M. Dent-Brocklehurst (ed.), Jenny Saville: Territories, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1999, p. 31).
‘A few months later Jenny called to ask if I would consider posing for a painting. She was quite tentative at first as if she was expecting me to be appalled by the idea. I was thrilled… and knew instantly that it was the right thing to do’ (D. LaGrace Volcano, ‘On Being a Jenny Saville Painting’, M. Dent-Brocklehurst (ed.), Jenny Saville: Territories, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1999, p. 25).
‘It was inspirational to see what an artist so devoted to her work and meticulous in her research can accomplish’ (D. La Grace Volcano, ‘On Being a Jenny Saville Painting’, M. Dent-Brocklehurst (ed.), Jenny Saville: Territories, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 1999, p. 25).
Executed on a monumental scale, Jenny Saville’s thought-provoking portrait of transgender photographer Del LaGrace Volcano is an uninhibited meditation on the human body and the pressures of conformity. Through complex brushstrokes which come together in almost abstract painterly gestures, Saville expertly recreates the human figure imbued with life and shocking intensity. With its legacy in the seminal masterpiece Plan (1993) that first brought Saville to public acclaim in the Royal Academy’s landmark 1997 exhibition Sensation, the present work is rendered with the same rare and unflinching honesty that characterised the ground-breaking aesthetic of the Young British Artists. Extending the visual language of Plan, Matrix confronts the question of human vulnerability, body image and gender that has continued to define Saville’s practice. In this provocative painting Saville creates an entirely new ideological framework in which we are forced to re-evaluate our understanding of the human form. In this way, Matrix is a powerful accompaniment to Saville’s march against the prescriptions society places upon the female gender. ‘It’s like an epidemic’ she says, ‘what would beauty be, if everyone were the same?’ (J. Saville quoted in S. Kent Shark Infested Waters: The Saatchi Collection of British Art in the 1990s, London 1994, p. 83-84).
In Matrix the spectator is initiated into a deeply private ritual, witnessing an intimate dialogue between artist and sitter. Del LaGrace Volcano lies completely exposed to the viewer, her vulnerability balanced by her unflinching gaze. Rendered in hues of mottled cream, peach, blush, and flares of radiant orange, Saville’s accomplished application of paint expertly evokes the texture and elasticity of flesh. As the eye travels up the body, following the flaws and curves of the human form, a transition occurs from the female form to a bearded masculine jawline. Through this transformation, the male gaze characteristic of historical nude paintings has been deliberately turned on its head. Embracing the complexities of a body which not only questions the notion beauty but also, and more fundamentally, the notion of gender, Saville’s portrait of Del LaGrace Volcano glows with its own inherent, unique beauty. The title itself embraces these complexities, on the one hand taking its roots in the old English term for womb, while in the more contemporary sense hinting at a frame or environment in which ideas, such as gender, can germinate.
Saville’s virtuoso brush marks and vitreous paint build up on the surface of the canvas to express the physicality of her subject. To this end, Saville relishes in the qualities of thick impastoed paint, making her a true painter’s painter, eschewing the flat photo-realist images of many of her contemporaries. Her nearly sculptural painterly technique has evolved from the legacy Chaim Soutine, Pater Paul Rubens and Francis Bacon: ‘For me it’s about the flesh, and trying to make paint behave in a way that flesh behaves. Using its material quality, which ranges from a stain to something thick and juicy, to something quite dry. Trying to use mark-making to communicate the way a female body behaves. It is not just about the primacy of vision, it’s about using paint, its materiality, in a way that can evoke tactility’ (J. Saville, quoted in M. Gayford, ‘A Conversation with Jenny Saville’, Jenny Saville Territories, exh. cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, 1999, p. 30).
Saville’s work is concerned with the physical experience of the painting. She says of her own works, ‘It’s the effect of intimacy through scale that I want. Although large paintings are so often associated with grandeur, I want to make large paintings that are very intimate. I want the painting to almost surround your body when you stand very close to it. Rothko creates an intimacy through scale. When you stand very close to his paintings the colour hums and vibrates through you it - almost wraps around you. It’s a childlike feeling... I want the feeling that you don’t only command the piece of work, the piece of work also commands you’ (J. Saville, quoted in M. Gayford, ‘A Conversation with Jenny Saville’, in Jenny Saville Territories, exh. cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, 1999, p. 31).
Saville has long been fascinated with the idiosyncrasies of the human body and the contemporary quest for conventional beauty. Spending time in the operating theatre alongside a plastic surgeon, she became engrossed by the malleability of the flesh and the modifications carried out by professionals to those dissatisfied with their aesthetics. An avowed feminist herself Saville has historically been fascinated by experience from the female perspective. Del LaGrace is the exception to this, drawing Saville away from the female form, and in doing so broadening both her own and the viewer’s interpretation of beauty and gender. Matrix in many ways resonates with the concept of physically changing the body that we see in much of Saville’s work, and the brutal self-criticism that such a process naturally engenders. Whereas many of Saville’s subjects show the female form conforming to a pre-supposed idea of femininity in Matrix the subject bravely abandons the historic modes of beauty. This courage is celebrated in the raw emotion of Saville’s powerful canvas.