I planned an entire UK visit centered on the fact that Jenny Saville was having a show at the National Scottish Museum of Modern Art. I’d been posting about it on social media for months. Along with Saville, I added Dorothea Lange, Chantal Joffe, Annie Swynnerton, Tacita Dean, Julie Becker and others to the itinerary, intent on making a grand, whirlwind tour of women artists in six days or less. I’ll confess that I didn’t make it to every exhibit I wanted to see, and I’m heartsick over it. I’m heartsick not only because I don’t have the luxury of traveling the globe whenever I please—I assure you, I do not—but mainly because solo shows and retrospectives for women are still a rare occurrence, and the opportunity may not present itself again (and sadly, often not in the artist’s lifetime). Take Saville, for instance. The British painter has been on the scene for twenty-five years—her graduate artwork in 1992-93 was astonishing and put her on the map—but her NOW exhibit is her first to be held in Scotland and only her third in the UK. Then there’s Annie Swynnerton of Manchester. Swynnerton was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1922, and yet it’s taken nearly a century for her work to receive another retrospective.
I saw some fantastic work by male artists on my trip. The frustration, however, is that their work is typically always on display and accessible. It’s in the permanent collection. Women artists tend to have temporary exhibitions. And so one saves and saves and takes planes and trains to lay eyes on a painting or sculpture done by a female artist.
The first time I saw a piece of art from Saville was during a slideshow in a Women’s Art History class I took during my undergrad years in the early aughts. Propped was unlike anything I’d seen before: a large female nude with folds of fat and flesh and fingers digging into her thighs. The angle of the painting is from below, looking up at this large woman balanced naked on a pedestal too small for her body, her feet wrapping around it, perhaps for support. The angle distorts the body further, while the woman’s head is thrown back, her eyes cast down and her lips pursed and slightly open, both suggesting the demure and sexual way we’ve seen women portrayed for centuries, and conveying pain in its contortion. It is a brilliant painting. It challenges the way the female nude has been painted for centuries, nearly entirely for the male gaze. Saville takes back ownership and autonomy of the female nude and of her own body.
I knew I had to see it in person. I never thought I would.
About four months ago I got an alert on my Facebook feed about a Jenny Saville exhibit at the National Scottish Museum of Modern Art. I felt a sense of urgency. It was now or never. So, I used the last of our savings (having been out of work for the last eight months) to book a trip, then went about researching other exhibits in the area, which included London or anywhere I could get to by train, and started an itinerary. The goal was to spend one month traveling around to see art, primarily by women artists, and staying in hostels. In the end, it was condensed to one week in London with day trips to Manchester and Edinburgh. But I got there. And when I walked into the exhibit, there she was, Propped. Across from the painting was a mirror so the viewer could read what Saville had scrawled backwards into the painting--a quote by the Belgian feminist Luce Irigaray: “If we continue to speak in this sameness--speak as men have spoken for centuries, we will fail each other again . . .”
After I saw the exhibit, I hurriedly posted my unedited, unfiltered thoughts on Facebook and Instagram, as one does:
The clouds have darkened. And the neon sign on the museum reads, “Everything Is Going To Be Alright,” and the opposing neon sign across the road flashes, “There Will Be No Miracles Here,” and the Domain Da Saissac cabernet is heavenly and full-bodied like the women in Raphealite paintings, that Raphealite beauty, that every-era beauty redefined, male gaze and all that shit, but the contradictions: I find myself believing both ideas: no miracles, everything will be alright...if you clap, you can save her.
I'm currently crafting an essay on Saville’s exhibit (still processing) and hoping to include some new work by a young male artist who is tackling the subject of the perception of the obese male body.
In the meantime, who the hell am I and why am I writing about art?
I don’t write about art from a critical standpoint, but from one of appreciation and passion. I’ve no formal training and have as much academic language to describe art as I do wine, though I indulge in both of them regularly. My love of art stems from childhood experiences of lying on the carpet of my grandmother’s living room, staring at the paintings my mother made as a teenager, proudly hung on the walls. I imagined her as a young artist and admired the details of her still life, as well as the figurative painting of her and her best friend playing on a teeter-totter. Years later I would discover that her biological father was also a painter. My interest in finding out more about him led me further down the path of art appreciation. Eventually, my mother would give me a stack of letters sent between my grandmother and grandfather after he had left her and my mother to travel the world (and escape child support). In his flamboyant cursive he revealed, “I’m an artist. I can’t live a traditional life.” In a postcard sent from the 1938 World’s Fair he taunted her further by writing, “You should really see this someday,” knowing she didn’t have the same opportunities and freedom of movement that he (and society) gifted to himself.
My grandfather’s words ignited in me a question that has burned ever since: what about the woman artist?
In my play The Killing Jar, I write about two ex-patriot artists living in the Philippines—one male, one female—and how their lives, artistically and otherwise, hold similarities under differing constraints (societal, egotistical, economical, etc.). Researching for the play deepened my already strong passion for art and eventually led me into exploring the possibility of writing about it in other ways.
By the way, my mother’s figurative painting went to my sister.
She gave me the still life.
I still sit and stare at it.