Boo Saville at TJ Boulting

 "At first [the colour field paintings] offered an emotional space in her work to escape and find comfort, and today this refuge has become joy."

- Press release, Boo Saville 'Ma' at TJ Boulting, 2022.

Installation view: Boo Saville, Ma, 6 May - 25 June 2022. TJ Boulting, London. Image courtesy of TJ Boulting via Artsy.

Simplicity can often feel like nothing short of a gift; this might come in the form of something complex being explained clearly, or perhaps being given the space to interpret things freely. This is particularly salient at a time where we have the expectation of understanding many different things at once. Scrolling through Twitter makes us face the experiences and opinions of thousands of people simultaneously, and on Instagram we are shown various degrees of 'perfection' via aesthetics. 

The pathway which this leads to 'Ma', a solo exhibition at TJ Boulting from Margate-based artist Boo Saville, is that the artist uses colour field paintings to produce essentially an experience of colour, or the ways in which colour might illustrate and illuminate one's own experiences. This is a challenging task to execute, but the themes of mother figures, childlessness and deliberately empty space make for a stunning and sobering viewing, where the thoughts of the artist and those of the viewer seem to come together in a sombre dance.

Boo Saville, Rachel, 2022. Oil on canvas, 200cm x 160cm x 4.7cm. Unique. TJ Boulting, London. Image courtesy of Artsy.

TJ Boulting's first room consists of four large-scale colour field paintings that Saville is now renowned for, three of which are included in the first photograph above. Standing at 200cm x 160cm, the paintings dominate the room, but due to their gradation and soft blending techniques (it would be incredibly easy to mistake them for photographic prints, but they are all oil on canvas) they are not intimidating, in fact they evoke a sense of ease and calm. In this space, the artist has given each of the paintings a girl's name; she says that "they are titled after the girls I may have had as children but also after important women in my life. I hope that people feel happy when they see them, the way I do every day at the studio." Here we see the power of dreaming, something encouraged in society in order to further our careers, yet something that is equally chastised as being unproductive. The dreaming of what could have been is a vital part of navigating life and our own experiences, and for Saville it seems to act as a creative force and perhaps a therapeutic means of grieving. If this is the case, it is movingly palpable in the space.

A driving force of 'Ma' is the role of the mother and the artist's "involuntary childlessness", as put in her own words. The show's press release is beautifully personal, littered with direct first-person quotes from the artist, which displaces some of the muggy jargon that finds its way into many a press release and artwork citation. This discussion feels timely, given the dismantling of Roe v Wade in the United States at the time of writing. Conception, gestation and parenting are now particularly hot topics, despite the fact that for most women and people with wombs, these are daily conversations, daily tests, daily decisions and daily heartbreaks. The context that Saville lost her mother in her thirties, and has been through her own challenges regarding her fertility, feels like incredibly personal information given that the viewer (in general) does not know the artist personally, yet it is one that makes the work on display all the more powerful. 

Installation view: Boo Saville, Ma, 6 May - 25 June 2022. TJ Boulting, London. Image courtesy of TJ Boulting via Artsy.

The second, and final, room feels poignant and personal in a different way, and arguably addresses these ideas more figuratively. Hyperreal ink drawings on paper accompany a smaller series of Saville's colour field paintings, this time in bolder and seemingly less regimented palettes and gestural marks. Where there is a comparative sensation of uniformity and control in the first room, paintings in the second generate a mood of acceptance and joy in living an individual life on one's own terms. However there is no linear narrative in this exhibition, which is exciting and certainly telling of the reality of child-rearing and its surrounding decisions and barriers. The mood of the exhibition, too, is neither concrete nor linear, and the drawings are far more sombre than the paintings; with detailed depictions of objects symbolic to fertility and new life cycles, such as an egg, nest and weed, we are drawn back to our status as part of the natural world. 

Installation view: Boo Saville, Ma, 6 May - 25 June 2022. TJ Boulting, London. Image courtesy of TJ Boulting via Artsy.

Ultimately, although issues such as fertility and family are somewhat universal, in their being universal we find that everyone experiences them differently. The second meaning of 'Ma', the Japanese expression describing the 'space in between', has huge aesthetic potential. TJ Boulting's press release informs us that Ma is "a deliberately empty space but one which holds its own presence and significance". For Saville, the roles of mother and child, respectively, may be this empty space, but they are also filled with emotion and parts of the artist herself; they are not so empty after all. This is a pattern mirrored in us all, regardless of family setup. Parts of us are symbolically left, and shared, everywhere we go, and we see this in the exhibition with the display of a self-portrait at the end, bringing all these themes and abstract yet universal ideas back to Saville, reinforcing her needs and desires. Of course, this is not to lessen the gravity of Saville's feelings around losing her mother and her struggle with fertility, more to celebrate the ways they have been visually communicated so beautifully. While it is often argued that the artist loses sovereignty over their work once it is witnessed by others, I would argue that 'Ma' is an excellent example of how an artist can be tied to their work and be present in a raw form. Although I introduced the exhibition as blissful in its simplicity, once this gift is unwrapped, we observe and share in the complexities of issues that are commonplace but still incredibly affecting.

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