Peter Saul

Haunch of Venison

Tom McGrath

Peter Saul, Sickroom, 1964; oil on canvas; 50 ½ x 59 inches; collection of Sally and Peter Saul; © Peter Saul; courtesy Haunch of Venison, New York

Typical Saigon, 1968; oil on canvas; 93 x 144 inches; © Peter Saul; courtesy Haunch of Venison, New York

There is a moment that the genre of history painting aspires to capture, a moment that often becomes the measure by which any history painting succeeds or fails, referred to in old art-history texts (in a somewhat patronizing term) as the “pregnant moment.” Peter Saul paints the moment right after this moment, when history gives birth to realities more grotesque than Goya’s Horrors of War, and more paranoid than the Cold War and the War on Terror combined. It could be called the “clusterfuck” moment, and it belongs to Peter Saul.

Peter Saul: 50 Years of Painting at Haunch of Venison presents this artist’s trajectory from painterly Pop to hyperbolic satire. Curator Chris Byrne’s selections emphasize Saul’s role as a consummate history painter who envisions a typically American ahistorical present that disguises its amnesia in valorizing pastiche, and fills in the blanks with tabloid spectacle, sexual phobia, nativism and symbolic violence. In Saul’s hands, this cultural amnesia becomes visual distortion, a funhouse mirror to the myopia of worldviews.

For many artists influenced by Saul, such as Mike Kelley (who has written about him), his distortions have a desublimating softness, a fluidity that defies the masculinity tropes of hard-edge minimalism and post-painterly abstraction. For painters with mastery issues, from the dry-witted George Condo to the dull-witted LA “Lowbrow” scene, Saul is perhaps a permissive but creepy uncle—reveling in deviant desires, the anathema of “easel painting” and reactionary political themes.

In contrast to recent and larger “first” surveys of Saul presented at the Orange County Museum of Art (2008) and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (2008–09), several canvases are conspicuously absent here, in particular the recent but already iconic Bush at Abu Ghraib (2006). One of the most controversial, The Execution of O.J. (1996), is present but cautiously isolated, tucked away in an alcove. This curatorial decision would seem to capitulate to fear of scandal or market timidity (the museum-like gallery is owned by an auction house) were it not for the bloodbath colonialism on display in such large-scale works as Custer’s Last Stand 1 (1974) and Columbus Discovers America (1992–95).

Near comprehensive in scope, Byrne’s selection also generously includes rarely exhibited early work that provides insight into Saul’s formative years spent largely in Paris. These paintings, including Icebox 7 and Icebox 9 (both 1963) as well as Bathroom Sex Murder (1961), represent Saul’s foray into the Pop idiom with near-pornographic aplomb. Defiant of the carefully cultivated image of American postwar expressionism, Saul’s early ’60s work hatches vulgar populism through a painterly surface. Unlike the like-minded “Funk” artists, the Chicago Imagists, the Hairy Who and H.C. Westermann, Saul’s cartoon morphology doesn’t riff on reductive abstraction, ornament or vernacular craft. Perhaps attributable to his European sojourn, Saul’s profanity instead avails itself through the grand manner of the Beaux-Arts tradition.

As Saul’s perverse imagery becomes more polymorphous by the late ’60s, his gestural brushwork is sucked through the picture plane into a cartoon-like mannerism. Whereas in earlier work a brushstroke might meander through several pictorial or diagrammatic roles—the path of a bullet, an arm, a beeline—later works rely more on illusionistic “stippling” to streamline form into narrative. Typical Saigon (1968) offers the best example of this bristling transition, where Saul’s profanity and eclecticism—his mixture of painting effects—coalesce into a single “clusterfuck” moment, and where the compositional “S curves” of Rubens and the offset-symmetrical thrust of Delacroix become entangled in friendly fire in a booby-trapped web of prostitution.

Beckmann’s The Night, 2009; acrylic on canvas; 72 x 84 inches; © Peter Saul; courtesy Haunch of Venison, New York

The Execution of O.J., 1996; acrylic, oil and alkyd on canvas; 84 x 72 inches; © Peter Saul; courtesy Haunch of Venison, New York

In Typical Saigon Saul tweaks the hues of Hokusai’s Fuji in Clear Weather (c. 1831) to produce a fallout-glowing background, over which he wages a color-coded battle of the stereotypes—black, yellow and swollen pink in gruesome, orgiastic cartoon violence. Two yellow-skinned prostitutes are sprayed with bullets and penetrated by the teeth and limbs of two American GIs. Throughout, Saul’s figuration renders bodies that look like lubed-up inflatables tied into knots at the ends. On the edges of the painting, mock-Asian font reads “Start Praying You Bastards” and “Typical Saigon.”

Saul often references tabloid political cartoons, where the drawings are so poorly conceived and the audience so poorly informed that cartoonists feel the need to label pictorial elements. Saul exploits the redundancy of such labels, as both explanations and non sequiturs. For example, God’s halo in Jesus in Electric Chair (2004) reads “The Man Upstairs,” and a pile of emerald boxes is curiously labeled “the dead.”

Saul’s “clusterfuck” moments unfold entire events in pictorial time, as he interweaves historical motifs with depictions of the events’ own (often unintended) consequences. A figure can be dismembered into several pieces spread across the canvas and still be smiling. Saul’s tragic characters often have an oblivious, infantile look, like the boob-faced drunk kid in Oedipus Junior (1983) who gouges his eyes out with school art supplies while using a chainsaw to masturbate. But Beckmann’s the Night (2009), one of his “cover” paintings, is perhaps Saul’s most comically Oedipal work. Saul was, after all, a student at Washington University shortly after Max Beckmann’s tenure there. Beckmann’s The Night (1918–19) depicted torture, bondage and rape in Weimar Germany. Saul changes the scene’s supporting cast to include a more oafish inquisitor and Beckmann himself, licking the purple foot of a lynched man while a naked, Aryan-looking Frau is subjected to the same strappado fate she endured in Beckmann’s original, this time with her face turned toward the viewer.

Despite its “lowbrow-ness,” Saul’s work doesn’t infantilize its viewer. In a video interview (tucked noisily between galleries) he talks about the essential “harmlessness” of art. This statement affords art little political efficacy, yet as an artist Saul appears drawn to impolitic subjects that allow him or his viewer if not social change then at least a sense of cultural revenge. When a Gestapo officer supposedly asked Picasso if he produced Guernica, he answered, “No, you did.” One might imagine Saul answering a similar question about O.J. or Custer or Abu Ghraib, “Yeah, we did.”

Tom McGrath is an artist who lives and works in New York.

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