Jenny Saville’s exhibition Ancestors at Gagosian checks off all the boxes of a bad BFA thesis show—sloppy abstraction mixed with sloppy figuration, some “edgy” mutilated figures, a healthy dose of misplaced angst, and a facile conceptual framework. The paintings themselves are superficial, fast, and constructed without conviction. The emotions Saville proposes have no pathos; they instead seem manufactured, with no empathy or intrigue. We have nothing but pure posturing and affectation—a lackluster regurgitation of Willem de Kooning and late Jackson Pollock.
Saville also sees fit to appropriate African busts in works like Fate I (2018). In an exhibition entitled Ancestors, this becomes a primitivist gesture par excellence. One might assume that Saville has never seen Hannah Höch’s equally problematic, but certainly more self-aware, series From an Ethnographic Museum. Toni Morrison has argued that racist tropes are more than offensive; they do no useful affective or aesthetic work: “Neither blackness nor ‘people of color’ stimulates in me notions of excessive, limitless love, anarchy, or routine dread. I cannot rely on these metaphorical shortcuts…” For Morrison, appropriation speaks of an easy way out, a slapdash methodology—less akin to cogent inquiry than a high school science experiment that your parents did for you the night before. Appropriation is nothing more than a shortcut, a shortcut that Saville obviously took in an effort to create paintings that speak to identity politics, when in fact she speaks to neither personhood nor paint. Only white artists can take this lazy path, for we unjustly foist the burden of rigorously theorizing race upon artists of color.Even if one does not find the questionable racial politics to be an issue, there is still the fact that the work does not even support any useful investigations of identity at all. Depicting bodies is not the same as interrogating the body or bodily regimes. Painting expressionistically does not equal expression. Referencing history is not historicism. Depicting androgynous individuals is neither queer nor feminist. Thoughtless painting is only thoughtless painting and nothing more.