New York

Peter Saari

O.K. Harris Gallery

How can we resist the temptation to reach into the past, into that overflowing well of artifacts and ideas, when it offers itself for plunder like an over-anxious lover? Few artists, today, seem willing or able to refrain; they fill their works with as many historical references as they can carry. They appear to be concerned with the countless allusions which materialize when diverse visual attitudes are melded together. Going against the grain of this current fascination for images which embrace the doctrines of cross-cultural, a-temporal eclecticism, Peter Saari has reached into the unchaste past and pulled from it an exacting vision of the remains of a single civilization. His near-literal recreations of fresco fragments refer only to the fallen grandeur of a decayed and time-gnawed Rome.

To focus on ancient Rome at the expense of all other cultures is by no means a choice which necessarily limits an artist—after all, it has long been looked upon as an ideal source of inspiration. The majesty of its imperial palaces, the eccentricities of its society’s tastes, its disease, corruption and refinement are only a few of the notions which we (appropriately or not) cannot help but associate with that Rome. Yet Saari makes reference without reverence; he seems uninterested in taking advantage of his subject’s potential. He treats Rome with the cold hand of an archeologist, valuing the civilization for the time it spent in the dank, sulphurous ground rather than recognizing it as a mine for reveries.

Instead of using his clever technique to grant us an image of a Rome that we have always been left to suspect, Saari makes mock frescoes which are very much in the vein of those works which have been unearthed. Saari’s paintings are not exact reproductions of extant Roman wall-works, but they do not appear to deviate greatly from them. It is Saari’s loyalty to these images—his lack of desire to leave his sources completely behind—that keeps his work from taking flight. Had he chosen to place his talent at the service of fantasy, he might have been able to add to, or perhaps even subvert, our museum-enforced conception of Rome. But instead, he pictures the past in a fashion that we have already come to accept, and simply restates that which is familiar.

I want to be misled. I want to be lied to, to be given a glimpse of what I have never been able to know; to touch, to see before me, the art of a Rome that never existed. I want fiction: images of deformed beasts bred by the Romans to enliven their feasts; depictions of fantastic columns made from unimagined marbles with capitals that have yet to be discovered; references to myths which have been lost, to goddesses representing passions we are just beginning to remember; in other words, works which would urge us to reassess our belief that Antiquity can be known. But Saari is unwilling to take the plunge. He steadfastly refuses to leave behind the things that he has seen and assume the responsibilities of a dreamer. He could portray perversions, strange sensual crimes or invent exotic scenes all in the name of Rome. But there is not even a passing reference to passion in Saari’s works—they refer only to their own decay.

Fearing that his own Rome lacked passion, Nero was quick to try to liven it up, but Saari cares only to paint Rome burned and offers us no vision of a hot time. Saari, it would appear, has spent more time watching films documenting archeological excavations than he has studying Fellini’s Satyricon, and because of this his work allows us only an illusory glimpse of the lifeless remains of what could still be a vibrant past.

Douglas Blau