New York

Peter Saul

Allan Frumkin Gallery

In his current exhibition at the Allan Frumkin Gallery Peter Saul shows a series of very large drawings in colored inks and crayons. Skirmishing with the topics of Vietnam and the wild vulgarities of present-day American life, these drawings reach a pitch of eye-blistering ferocity touched on in his show of oils last season.

Saul’s artistic vision combines a manic wackiness of formal invention with a scatological imagery so ingenious and hysterically varied as to invite comparison with the most colorful tableaux described in Sade’s Justine. Saul’s characters however are all in modern dress; each appendage, no matter how unlikely, has been subjected to suggestive distensions like Plastic Man in one of his more unthinking karmas. Bulging tumescences dangle and point or probe sodomitically at any adjacent image. Pimpled and veined, stippled and hatched, forms swoop around and through the picture to lead the eye a frantic game of “cachecahce” where nothing is really hidden, only immersed in a plethora of competing details so as to tax one’s ability to focus on a single shape. This vertiginous complexity does not stop with just the form however; Saul’s color is so high, nasty, and unexpectedly harmonic as to compound the razzle-dazzle to a painful point. Lettering, puzzle grids, and numerous pentimenti are the last straw. Each picture is, as Lady Bracknell characterized Cicely Worthing’s life, “crowded with incident.”

If one can possibly manage to screen out the content from the forms that bear it, what emerges is a pictorial know-how evolved in part from Beckmann’s undifferentiated color areas bounded by active contour lines, partly from the “dumb” conventions of shading and textures developed by mass media, and the complicated volume-as-vector techniques of certain Mattas. This is not to say that Saul’s style is cooked up from these ingredients, but only that the structural aspects of his work relate to realms of pictorial order which, individually, set high, if varied, standards. In Saul’s work the factor that causes these and other currents to reach critical mass is the sincerity and intensity of his response to the things that set him off. In this regard he may be compared to the very best, most searing works of Georg Grosz. That in the past Saul has shown the same smokeball force in large-scale paintings is encouraging evidence that the illustrational detail so striking in his work does not mask a void, but is in fact only possible artistically because it is supported by a first-rate picture-making ability that is essentially independent of any narrative intent. After all, this is the only base from which an artist can risk forays into topicality.

What Saul has done in his work is not merely unleash a flood of mock-naughty imagery but contain (just barely) an exceptional, explosive inventiveness within the only framework that could possibly hold it, i.e., the fantastic variety of competing images, motivations, barbarities, and numbing debasements of the sensibility that composes any random segment of modern life. The texture of this kind of experience is what the mad prodigality of Saul’s compositions summons up. Saul’s art really hurts, and it is no surprise that his influence and reputation are greater than his popularity.

Dennis Adrian