There's a lot to look at in Jenny Saville's new painting, Fulcrum, on show at the Saatchi Gallery's exhibition "Ant Noises". For one thing, Fulcrum is the kind of billboard-sized work that cruel critics maintain appeals to Charles Saatchi's ad-man's eye. At five metres by three, it is about bigness. Which is fair, given that the picture's subject is a trio of enormously fat women, tied together naked on what looks like a mortuary slab. Vast breasts shear across the canvas like tectonic plates, an effect made more powerful by Saville's planar brushwork. Her palette - a mottling foxblood, cellulite yellows and subaqueous blues - suggests dead meat. At Fulcrum's centre, the thighs of the two lower women lock like clasped fingers. So dense is the painting that the figures become a single, illegible mass: a cumulo-nimbus of flesh that floats out at you with that lightness-on-its-feet of the very fat.
And it is beautiful. The thing that strikes you about Fulcrum is its delicacy, that same perverse juggling with massiveness that allows you to see a two-ton Richard Serra as fragile or a wall- sized Rothko as frail. On the one hand, the painting's construction makes you worried that it is about to collapse under its own weight, thundering out of the picture- space in an avalanche of avoirdupois. Saville, who appears as the top figure in the picture, says that she had to paint it from polaroids because "you just can't ask people to lie on top of each other like that for long." There are delicacies in Fulcrum's narrative as well. A mother and daughter feature: "The mother's sixty and they'd never seen each other naked before," says Saville.
But is the picture intentionally grotesque? Had Fulcrum been painted by Lucian Freud - comparisons of the two artists' styles are made more frequently than Saville likes - you would have felt that its premise was unkind. As it is, Saville has placed her subjects in a pose that is plainly painful on account of their weight, tied them together with ligatures that cut into their arms and splattered them with a clotted red pigment that reads ambiguously as either shadow or blood. The echo is less of Freud than of Francis Bacon, humanity on the butcher's hook.
Saville's answer is uncompromising. "I don't think Bacon pushed it as far as he could have done," she says, drawing on the compulsory Britpack Marlboro. "His mark-making retained an interest in the subject, that's what gave it its charge. …