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I dare you not to be impressed by Jenny Saville. If nothing else, the scale of her monumental paintings demands that you pay attention. At 103 inches tall by 192 inches wide, her Fulcrum (1997-99), for instance, is certainly one of the largest single-painting canvases you're likely to encounter, and it has a visceral impact commensurate with its size.
More to the point, though, Saville has a dexterity that makes it impossible to ignore her. You may not be drawn to her subject matter — primarily the human body in extremis — and you may not care for her radical solutions to the challenges posed by oil painting. You may, in fact, recoil from her work. But to remain unimpressed by her achievement borders on perversity.
Saville, who was born in Cambridge in 1970, has had an artistic life that might be characterized as charmed. After an extensive art education, she had a 1992 show at a London gallery that caught the attention of advertising executive and world-class art collector Charles Saatchi. He not only bought up everything in the exhibition; he also commissioned works from Saville for the next two years. She was then included in "Sensation: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection," a landmark 1997 show that began at the Royal Academy of the Arts and generated controversy when it traveled to the Brooklyn Museum two years later.
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Saville is known for painting plus-sized naked women, but that's an oversimplification. The Norton show does include some female figures that go well beyond Rubenesque — the three entwined, enormous bodies that make up Fulcrum; the big woman improbably perched on a tiny stool in Propped (1992); the rear view of a huge nude torso that bears the imprints of undergarments in Trace (1993). These paintings dwarf the viewer with mountains of human flesh.
But there's just as much emphasis here on heads and faces. The exhibition opens with Reverse (2002), an 84-inch-by-96-inch close-up of a reclining girl's face. Plump, moist lips part to reveal a few teeth, and dazed eyes gaze through us as much as at us. The girl lies on a mirrored surface, so that we can see part of her face reflected in it. But it's the immediacy that registers — not claustrophobia, exactly, but an uncomfortable closeness, creating the illusion that we can feel and hear her hot breath.
Those sensations carry over to Hyphen (1998-99), a massive painting of a pair of heads belonging to children of indeterminate age and gender. The heads are crowded onto the canvas atop shoulders scrunched in such a way as to suggest conjoined twins. It's an image simultaneously beautiful and unnerving.
Several other paintings portray faces that have been in some way traumatized or disfigured. A particularly haunting image, the cloudy-eyed Rosetta (2005-06), is of a blind woman who sat for Saville in Palermo, Italy, described by the artist as "the most beautiful woman I ever photographed."
Saville owes a great deal to Lucian Freud and, through him, to Francis Bacon. She shares their uncanny ability to convey the vividness of flesh using oil paint — the sense of its surfaces but also of its volume. Her lineage, however, is varied, including influences from Leonardo to Picasso, Vermeer to Rembrandt, de Kooning to Cindy Sherman. She has attributed the parted mouth on the shockingly battered face in Stare (2004-05), another subject of uncertain age and gender, as being inspired, amazingly, by Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring. I don't know what's more disturbing: that Saville used such an exquisitely delicate painting as a reference, or that we can readily pick up on the similarities if we look for them.
She seems equally shaped by some of the experiences she had during her early artistic development. A six-month scholarship to the University of Cincinnati in 1989 apparently affected her deeply. "Lots of big women," she has recalled. "Big white flesh in shorts and T-shirts. It was good to see because they had the physicality that I was interested in." She has also logged time observing plastic surgery, which no doubt accounts for her sensitivity to the malleability of the human face.
Although it's the big paintings that wow us, Saville's virtuosity extends to drawing as well. There are two galleries that focus mostly on recent works in pencil and charcoal on paper. The most impressive of these document a fascination approaching obsession with a famous Leonardo da Vinci cartoon called The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist, from the very end of the 15th Century.
In Saville's hands, the Leonardo becomes a point of departure for a mesmerizing study of process.
Despite the uninspired title, "Jenny Saville" is something of a coup for the Norton Museum, where it was assembled with great verve by in-house curator Cheryl Brutvan. (It moves on to England's Modern Art Oxford next year.) It's also one of the best exhibitions to open in South Florida in the past year.