Saville uses her own body for most of her paintings

This week we heard painter Jenny Saville speak at Boston University. Thirty minutes before the lecture was scheduled to begin at Morse Auditorium, 500 people were already in a line snaking down Commonwealth Avenue. My initial reaction was, how cool. How often do you find people waiting in a long line to hear a painter talk?

Sure, Saville is an international art star of the first order. Her work sells at astronomical prices. And as one of Saatchi’s early finds (he purchased her entire graduate exhibit) and part of the juggernaut of successful artists known as YBAs (Young British Artists), she hit the big time in her early twenties. Now she has a lottery winner’s life, living in a magnificent but tastefully dishabille 18th-century palazzo in Palermo, Sicily. She has 22 rooms that each house a painting she is working on. OK, it does sounds like the ultimate painter’s dream.

But this was no lifestyle evening. Saville stood up and launched immediately, talking for 90 minutes straight. Using double screens, she showed examples of her own work alongside images that have inspired her. Her source material was a steady stream: Photographs of distended, obese bodies; medical textbooks for plastic surgery; burn victims; murder scenes; slaughterhouses; autopsies. But there were also lots of paintings—Soutine, Degas, de Kooning, Velasquez, Warhol, Pollack. Clicking through hundreds of slides, her energy and passion for the power of these images never flagged.

Spending time sketching and photographing in a slaughterhouse was, according to Saville, one of the most beautiful experiences of her life

Saville isn’t slick or particularly polished. She seems to struggle to capture in language what her eye sees with such alacrity. Her description of her struggle as a woman artist who must, as she put it, get out from under the “burden” of the painting canon was delivered haltingly. It isn’t her content or her narrative that compel me; it is rather a dauntingly brilliant hand. There’s so much love and respect in her for wet pigment on a surface. Her mastery is in understanding how plasticity becomes an artifact with its own eminence.

Saville’s work is a cacophonous celebration of paint. Her immense canvases, when encountered close up, are complex, lush and juicy. Stepping back from the abstraction of the microview to perceive her larger than life figurative imagery—exploring the vicissitudes of flesh has been her primary project since art school—offers up a completely different encounter with her art. Both are valid means of experiencing the potency of a Saville painting.

Many times she referred to the “violence” she sees in a painting or an image. She sees it in dead bodies and mutilated limbs. But she also sees it in the streak of red paint in a de Kooning, in a young girl’s hair being combed in a Degas, in photographs of derelict buildings and crumbling ruins. That is Saville’s lens on the world, and it leads to paintings of subject matter that speak to that view. While that is not my lens, I am inspired by her relentlessness.

Saville speaks about her work without self-regard or arrogance. She has an unbridled intensity and humility (“This painting was supposed to be about the different tones of flesh, but I think I failed miserably”) that is palpable. She seems at ease opening her kimono to an auditorium full of strangers and exposing her peculiar and extraordinary mindset. I was not expecting that level of candor. I’m too quick to assume celebritism kills what was once authentic in a person who has achieved that level of success. How wrong I was.

At one point she described herself as having a “vicious” eye at collecting imagery. Well put. When I think of Saville now, I envision her as a giant cosmic eyeball that never stops scanning and absorbing everything in its domain. And doing so with intense heat. A hot, provocative, relentless eyeball.

She was, and is, unforgettable.

One panel from a commissioned triptych Saville is painting for a church in Rome