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BACKSTAGE: Paint It Red

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Elton talks to Jenny Saville
Sunday 30 November 2003 @ 14:00 - GMT

Elton John talks to controversial painter Jenny Saville for Interview magazine, October 1, 2003:

ELTON: I'm here with Jenny Saville in the most unlikely place--Sicily. I've been a big fan of yours for such a long time. I saw your show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City last spring, and it blew me away because the work was so strong and real. With so much abstract art these days, to walk into the gallery and see work that focuses on reality--like your huge painting of the pig [Suspension]--just completely thrilled me. You're one of the few artists working today who's committed to realism.

JENNY SAVILLE: I want people to know what it is they're looking at. But at the same time, the closer they get to the painting, it's like going back into childhood. And it's like an abstract piece--it becomes the landscape of the brush marks rather than just sort of an intellectual landscape.

EJ: How do you approach the process of painting?

JS: I tend to think about each section of a painting in terms of musical passages. I work on areas like one meter by one meter, so I'll think, I've got to get across the nose or the stomach of the pig or whatever; how am I going to play it? So I mix up all the colors and think of them as if they were tones. And then I think, How am I going to play that brush mark? Am I going to play it hard, next to some fiddly brush marks? I think of it like that.

EJ: Of all the painters around today, when your name comes up people always say the same thing--she can really paint. I've heard people compare your work to Lucian Freud's and to Francis Bacon's.

JS: I probably look at Bacon and [Willem] de Kooning more than Freud. De Kooning is my main man, really, because he just did everything you can do with paint. He reversed it, dripped it, scraped it. But I want to hold on to a certain amount of reality.

EJ: I also found the space of your last show particularly moving because it was just this huge white room.

JS: I panicked initially when I saw the space because I thought, I'm never going to have enough paintings for this room. But I was quite pleased when I got in there. In my studio, I have masses of stuff everywhere.

EJ: One thing that always strikes me about your work is how it addresses all the lies we're fed by the media. You seem hell-bent on telling the truth, even though you distort your personal image. For instance, I own two of your big photographs that you did with Glen [Luchford, a collaboration on a series of works that depict Saville pressed against glass], and in them you deliberately distort your face and body. From some of the full nudes, you'd think you were this huge, overweight woman. In fact, you're not--you're very petite, you have a lovely figure, and you're very pretty.

JS: I use my body as a prop. It's like loaning my body to myself. So the flesh becomes like a material. In the photographs the flesh was like paint. Those pictures all came out of my exposure to plastic surgery. I worked with this plastic surgeon in New York for quite a few months, and I saw all of this manipulation of flesh and liposuction and surgeons' fists moving around inside breasts.

EJ: Did it put you off the idea of ever having any plastic surgery done yourself?

JS: No, it's pretty impressive. What did put me off is that they discuss what kind of topping they want on their pizza while they're doing it!

EJ: Personally, I have such a hard time with my own body image--I can't look in a mirror without picking fault with myself so for me what sometimes comes across in your work is that you're very self-critical.

JS: I don't really see it like that, though--I see it as empowering that I manage to use my body to make something positive, whether I like it or not. EJ: GOd! I wish I had that ability. The way you present yourself sometimes makes me think, Does this woman have a problem with the way she looks? Does she hate herself?

JS: Everybody goes through a whole range of feelings about their bodies--at one point or another we all hate ourselves or love ourselves. EJ: Tell me about the collaboration with Glen. That exhibition in L.A. [at Gagosian in 2002] was just astonishing.

JS: It really only came about because Glen was taking my picture for British Vogue. I was working with glass for a painting at the time--I often use photography for making paintings--and the results were just awful. The glass had these awful reflections on it. Glen helped me sort it out. When I saw the Polaroids they were just perfect as photographs, better than I could ever have transformed them with paint [so we stayed with those]. Some things just work better that way.

EJ: So the photography work was like a glorious accident in a way.

JS: Yeah.

EJ: It's great when that happens, isn't it? Now, does most of your work end up in museums? I never see any of it coming up at auction.

JS: I guess I've always sold to Charles Saatchi. I graduated from art school, and he basically gave me his gallery and said, "Do what you want." So I've got a kind of connection with him. I'm working now with [gallerist] Larry Gagosian, so he sells my work. I like making work in my studio day in and day out, but I'm not so interested in the business side.

EJ: A couple of the paintings in the Gagosian show looked as if they depicted people who had been injured in an explosion.

JS: Yes. One of them was from a suicide bombing in Israel. I didn't want the painting to have a political edge of a specific time and place, but I've had the image [in my archives] for years. September 11, 2001, just put it right there in front of my face; then I felt I had to do it.

EJ: Do you think we live in an ugly world?

JS: Oh, fantastical--fantastically ugly. [both laugh] Everything is sort of a fantasy. There's no truth, just a series of lies.

EJ: Exactly, and that's why your paintings and your work are so impressive not many people are prepared to paint the truth or portray the truth in art.

JS: I don't really know if I do that. I'd like to think that I do. I do hope I play out the contradictions that I feel, all the anxieties and dilemmas. If they're there in the work, then that's brilliant.

EJ: Do you always work on a grand scale?

JS: I like to, I like that sense of awe. I'm small, so to make something huge just fills me up. I love that ability to make something, to make marks across the surface and have the physicality of it take over my body. I like art that's not really intellectual, something that has to do with sensation. EJ: Well, presenting works that size means the viewer has an opinion as soon as they walk into a room and see it--they have an immediate opinion or an idea.

JS: Same as with food. When you see food and you taste something, your response is so antirealistic. Either you like the taste or you don't.

EJ: What kind of films do you watch?

JS: I love Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni--people like that have a visual poetry. But I'm dying to see The Matrix Reloaded. I like movies like that, too. With a film or a piece of music, there's always a beginning and an end--with a painting you don't have that. You have the beginning and the end of the activity of making the painting. But as a viewer, you don't see my whole activity; you see only the final surface. So it's like getting all the notes all at the same time, the whole sound.

EJ: So, how long does it take you, from start to finish, to do a painting?

JS: Suspension took 18 months.

EJ: God almighty!

JS: I mean, I didn't work on it every day. So I would do a bit and then I'd get a bit frustrated. Whet I don't quite know which way to go, I'll start in another direction.

EJ: Do you have self-doubt, like everybody does? Halfway through work on an album I'll come home and play a song and I'll go, "Oh, my God, it's horrible. I've got to scrap it ant start again." Do you ever go through that?

JS: Yeah, I get to a point when I can't look at any other contemporary art; that's the biggest thing. Because if I look at anything else, it gives me other options; I think I can't have any other options because this is it, this is where I'm at. I do find at that moment I can look at old art because it gives me a sort of linkage to some tradition

EJ: Do you paint every day?

JS: I go through phases where I work constantly--like at the moment.

EJ: You're a binge painter.

JS: Yeah, I binge quite a lot. [both laugh] I like working. My friends get pissed off. I cancel dinner dates and all that kind of stuff because I like being in my studio.

EJ: So tell me about your place in Sicily.

JS: It's in Palermo. It's very visceral, it's an amazing city. Everything's just falling down and--

EJ: --Yeah, like Naples in a way.

JS: After the war, with everything bombed, it was--just left. Nobody lived in the middle of the city. So now people are going back and getting into these amazing old buildings.

EJ: It sounds very grand. I've found that I can't live in a place where I haven't got a great piece of art. What do you have on your walls?

JS: I don't have any of my paintings in my house, but if I did have art I would probably have photography. I have a lot of books, though. When I went to Palermo, I had to take just a selection of books on the airplane. I realized I need only artists like [Cy] Twombly, de Kooning, Bacon, Velazquez, and Titian. When it comes down to it, they're the people that will give clues or answers to what I'm looking for.

EJ: Speaking of great painters, does the constant comparison to Lucian Freud piss you off?

JS: Not really, because it is still British realism, and [it's not surprising] if you decide to paint a figure that's naked and realistic, there's a great master out there called Lucian Freud who does it. But I don't want to be seen as a pupil of his.

EJ: But out of the two of you, I would want one of your paintings.

JS: [laughs] That's a compliment.

EJ: They're so bloody expensive.

JS: I wish I got the money from them.

EJ: I know, that's one of the great paradoxes of artists and galleries. Anyway, thanks so much. I'm so glad I got to meet the woman behind those paintings.