New York

Peter Saari

C.W. Post Center Art Gallery

Peter Saari’s oils on shaped and stretched canvas simulate Etruscan and Roman tomb paintings. Saari represents the visible canvas—both surface and edge—as masonry, rendering peeled layers of paint, rough wall surfaces and broken edges, even the chalky blush of ancient pigments on plaster. Like the Poiriers, Saari transposes antiquity, literally transmitting the experience of ancient walls with a curatorial reverence for the physical facts of the artifacts he represents. He groups canvases as if they were chunks of wall (some are even numbered on the edge) reconstructed in a museum. The show implies a glorious antiquity visible now only in ruins, much like the museum sequence in Federico Fellini’s film Satyricon. Saari’s paintings embody the dialectic of historical thinking—he both renders the break and makes the reconstruction. He even arrests moment by moment deterioration in one work in which paint flakes that appear to have fallen into a crevice are in fact glued down.

Saari easily adopts the motifs of mural imagery—flaking paint and crumbling stone are indices of decay, and graffiti the human trace. Curiously enough, the artist is free to work out problems intrinsic to abstract painting because he is so safely contexted—he is representing. Representing the substance of the wall, both surface and edge, sets up a literal equation in which visual scale determines intuited weight—a large canvas is also a major chunk of masonry. In one suite of four paintings, Saari adopts a crowned rectilinear shape close to Robert Mangold’s essentialist geometry. But for Saari, the banded rectilinear shape functions as an excerpt, not an abstraction. It derives, in fact, from the end walls of Etruscan tombs, and as a wall it implies the architectural space that its antique model bounds. One painting (not hung) from the same series depicts a stylized door. The omission of this particular historical motif from the others in the series implies that Saari modifies his models. The shapes recall reproductions in early art-historical monographs in which the architectural environs of a painted wall are cropped away to leave the painted areas in isolation. Similarly, Saari notches one rectilinear canvas where a wooden beam was inserted in the tomb wall model.

Alan Moore