Always Missing the Point

A recent article by Waldemar Januszcak on Jennifer Saville’s show at Modern Art Oxford caused me to take a deep breath and think about whether I should have had kids or not…especially seeing that I am currently struggling to resolve a painting which has been challenging me for the past two years.  After less than a nano-second, I concluded that not having kids was definitely for me…despite, according to the author, that I would have, apparently, been a better artist.  I am also not a woman and this too, apparently, is another reason I don’t seem to be able to get my shit together.

I have been following Saville’s work since her international debut as a Sensational YBA and certainly find her boldness and fluidity of mark (although sometimes sickeningly slick) rather inspirational at times…she is indeed a masterful painter when she puts her mind to it. While I’m aware of many incredibly talented women painters (Dumas, Rego, Kollwitz, Qwen John, Hicks, Angelica Kauffmann, Gentileschi and Khalo readily come to mind), I certainly believe it simplistic and naive for Januszcak to assume that “male artists…always miss the point” and to say that “…women artists seem to be so much better at (it) than men…”. What about Freud, Goya, Picasso, Delacroix, da Vinci, Egon Shiele, Fischle, Lopez Garcia, etc? The list goes on and on. Some artists are simply better than others, despite their gender and what life experiences they’ve been through. Saville and a host of other women just happen to be among them. Maybe I am missing the point here, but who cares if an artist is male or female and chooses to work with a baby on their hip…or is even interested in “the amount of movement involved in holding a baby on your lap”?  While it may, during the nursing years, be necessary for some artists to do so because their circumstances demand it, Saville by comparison, can easily afford a nanny or three, actually chooses to have her babies on her hip while she’s working. So what? Does it make her a better artist (than men) as is suggested by the author? I think not. While I certainly don’t deny that parenting could inform and probably even inspire many artists both male and female, I find it rather unfortunate that this artist-as-mother status is touted as some kind of certification of artistic achievement and is pandered to and even referenced at a critical and curatorial level. Januszcuk’s statement, in my opinion, trivializes both male and female artistic achievement…including Saville’s.
Having said that, I’m not entirely convinced by the size and obviously intentional shock value that most of Saville’s grotesque subject matter demands. On the one hand, she seems to be attempting to be intensely intimate, while on the other, she’s slickly harping back to early YBA sensationalism. This seems to be at odds with any honesty that may belie her subject matter…or her (now) MABA status. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. She has after all, long been obsessed with female obesity, battery and trauma to the female body, but, if it’s really trauma, skin lesions, blood and blubber that she’s interested in, how come we haven’t yet seen any paintings of (obese, if you must) men who have also suffered severe trauma (think Iraq, IED’s and the like), the slaughter of whales in Japan, the clubbing of seal cubs in Canada or the skinning of live animals in China. Think of all the excitingly grotesque images she could come up with. She’s now only 42, so there’s still a chance we may see something other than mother and child images, obese women or portraits of girls with smashed-in faces. However impressive her paintings and drawings may appear at first glance, she seems rather self-obsessed with little to say about anything else. I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily a bad thing, nor am I attempting to diminish her oft thought-provoking images, I merely find it ironical that despite all her obvious talent, the huge dimensions of her canvases and the enormous figures within them, that her world still seems so sensationally small. Maybe it’s because there’s a baby on her hip.
Related reading:  (watch the video)


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