18 August 2008

Peter Saul ~ Relentlessly "Answer Averse"

Peter Saul. Bush at Abu Ghraib (2006), acrylic on canvas
78 x 90 inches (198.1 x 228.6 cm); Hall Collection.

Peter Saul. Columbus Discovers America (1992-95), acrylic and oil on
canvas 96 x 120 inches (243.8 x 304.8 cm); Levy Family Collection, Dallas.
~~~~~~~~~

In The New York Times last Friday you can find this review and related slide show of a retrospective exhibition of work by Peter Saul. Here are some of the relevant passages:
"Mr. Saul’s art is not pretty, though it has many eye-catching pleasures. Nor is it polite. Indeed, the artist makes zealous efforts to ensure the opposite. In America today, he says in a catalog interview, “there’s a tremendous need to not be seen as racist, not seen as sexist. So I want to make sure I am seen as those things.”

He succeeds. What museum would be the right one for a painting of a knife-wielding O. J. Simpson strapped down for execution as a buxom blond angel points to a blood-stained glove and intones, “This is why you have to die”? Or for a picture of Christopher Columbus slaughtering New World natives who themselves hold platters of chopped human limbs in their arms?

What is the appropriate place for art that stirs together John Wayne Gacy and Angela Davis, Mickey Mouse and Ethel Rosenberg, Stalin and Willem de Kooning, Basil Wolverton and George W. Bush, then spikes the broth with prickly references to capitalism, Communism, homophobia, feminism, Black Power, racism, pedophilia and art-world politics and — last but not least — to the aging, decaying, self-lacerating artist himself?

Depending on who’s looking, Mr. Saul might be seen either to embrace or revile individual ingredients in this stew, though when his art is pressed to declare its loyalties, it gives no unequivocal answers. Indeed, it seems to be answer-averse, a species of painting as agitation, picture-making as button-pushing.

[. . .]

He has kept himself more or less clear of the art world, so owes it nothing. He has also kept clear of fashion — having a longtime supportive dealer was, naturally, an enabling factor in this — and, with scant critical encouragement until recent years, has gone his own masterly realized hideous-hilarious way. And that way has been based on taking a fundamentally facile genre, Surrealism, and loading it with purposeful, critical content.

[. . .]

This is an art of combative moral ambiguity that looks as if it’s coming from some laugh-riot lunatic fringe but is, in fact, a sane and realistic depiction of the world. What’s wrong with this picture? each Saul painting asks. And each one answers: Everything."
Here again, is an artist about whom I know nothing. The most interesting point of the review, I think, is that the heart of the "art world" ~ NYC ~ cannot find any place to host the exhibition. The critic from The Times, unsurprisingly, bends over backwards to make excuses for the principle venues. It is pretty pathetic when the art world is so busy being "polite" - a stunning indictment.

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