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The great iconoclastic painter Peter Saul, for the first time ever, has turned his hand to curating, gathering together nearly two dozen kindred spirits for a show that revels, as to be expected, in the libidinous and the ravenous, the stunted and the scared, the blinkered and the grotesque — that is to say, humanity. The effect, as to be expected, is sublime.
The exhibition, at Zürcher Studio in the East Village, is called If You’re Accidentally Not Included, Don’t Worry About It, a title that can, and should, be applied to every artist-curated show. On the gallery website, in a statement that merits extensive quoting, Saul has this to say about his selection process:
Outside of two artists who were already shown in the gallery – Brian Belott and Taylor McKimens (whom I was interested in) – the other artists in this show are friends of mine. They’re either friends I’ve had for years, or they’re people I just met once for a few minutes and seemed friendly enough. My great embarrassment is that I couldn’t remember the names of all my artist friends fast enough. I ran out of time and space. There are at least 12 to 15 people who should be here if they want to. If there’s ever a next time, I’ll ask you all first.
I’ve got definite criteria for good looking, long lasting, important art, but nobody I know agrees with it. For this show, if I had to choose between 2 images, I chose the one that was more pictorial, sensational, illusionistic, glamorous, humanistic, funny, sexual, quarrelsome, violent, ugly, etc. etc. In case none of these applied, I chose the one I thought was more unusual to look at. The only absolute was to choose small works, so that more and more could fit in.
From the information presented here, alongside Saul’s decades-long history of plumbing the willfully outrageous, you’d rightfully expect that If You’re Accidentally Not Included would be a nonstop series of affronts. But while the work on display is uncompromising in every way, what stands out most about the show is its formal beauty and restraint.
In a brief video interview with James Kalm recorded at the opening, Saul says that he had only a week to pull the show together. This acutely abbreviated time frame, which could have easily paralyzed even a seasoned curator, seems to have enlivened Saul’s decision-making. The exhibition is a buzzy mix of paintings, sculptures and works on paper, mostly representational but some abstract, that alternately feed off and depart from one another. While none of the works would pass a sobriety test, high-keyed hysterics are often tempered by an entrenched earthiness, keeping the average emotional pressure somewhere between lurid absurdity and clammy anxiety.
Saul’s finely tuned instincts connect the dots where there are no dots to be had. Who else would pair a Chuck Close print, “Cindy (Smile)” (2013), apparently based on the paper pulp collages the artist made in the 1980s (which looked out of focus then, pixelated now), with two paintings of troll dolls bathed in acid-colored crepuscular light by Judith Linhares (“Mother,” 2009, and “Mother II,” 2010) — a grouping that accentuates the resolute artificiality of the Close while cooling down the aggressive kitschiness of the Linhares.
In other passages, the formal relationships are more pronounced, especially on the gallery’s west wall, which begins with Saul’s indecipherable “Hee Her” (2010), a drawing in acrylic and colored pencil of a head sprouting a foot where its nose should be, with three elastically morphing faces sketched in faintly behind it. To the right of the Saul is Steve DiBenedetto’s masterful abstraction “Psychic Object w Bark” (2010–14) and Mark Greenwold’s febrile “Passionate Friends” (2008), a bare-chested self-portrait with two women, one of whom is also shirtless.
The centrality of the mutant head in Saul’s drawing is restated in the rocklike form taking up the bulk of DiBenedetto’s painting, but the latter subtly shifts into a vertically tripartite composition thanks to the chunk of tree bark jammed along the canvas’s left edge and the complementary colors (alizarin and green) that split the main form in two. The three-part structure is repeated in Greenwold’s three figures, but the next set of works, a pair of canvases in acrylic, Flashe and acryla-gouache by Taylor McKimens, “Getting Under His” and “Getting Under Hers” (both 2011), recapitulates Saul’s centrality.
What energizes this show is the degree to which the elegance of the formal interplay is simultaneously balanced and subverted by the rawness of the content. DiBenedetto’s painting in particular possesses a brooding, gritty intensity that subsumes the abrasive texture and dark coloration of the tree bark into the overall abstraction, which is offset by a frame overlaid with aluminum foil and fluorescent orange camo tape. His darkly smoldering brushstrokes augment the prickly sexuality of the Greenwold, whose relative classicism acts as a foil to McKimens’ toxic green fields and heavily crosshatched, rainbow-colored figures (a man in “Getting Under His” and a woman in “Getting Under Hers”), both nude from the waist up, with cardboard boxes squashed over their heads and their bodies oozing foamy, squiggly blobs of who-knows-what.
In the adjoining section of the same wall, the formal motif underpinning the deliriously varied, often unhinged subject matter is the circle: bubbling up in the text-strewn reverse glass paintings by Brian Belott; the vertically stacked, three-part narrative of a bacon-and-eggs breakfast-in-progress (“EggsactlywhatIwantmymorning2looklike,” 2014) rendered in deeply sculpted impasto by Gina Beavers; Eric Hibit’s candy-colored, anatomically correct “Heart with Lemon” (2012); tondos in clay and acrylic, respectively, by Polly Apfelbaum and KAWS; and Chelsea Seltzer’s homage to fast food, “McThat” (2010), which features smiley faces floating past abstract swoops of color, loopy line drawings of teeth (roots and all), and a Photorealist mystery-meat sandwich.
The circles then double back through the exhibition’s two pedestal-based sculptures, the funkily organic ceramic “Vase” (2014) by Sally Saul and Regina Bogat’s “Jeanne d’Arc” (1969), a studded, helmet-like Sculp-metal and painted wood abstraction that bears a kinship with Peter Agostini’s “Samurai” sculptures from roughly the same time period.
The rambunctiousness of the freewheeling, often bristling works on display — which also include pieces by Michael Dotson, Judith Hudson, Irena Jurek, Austin Lee, and Erik Parker — obscures the generational disparity among the contributors, with veterans like Saul, Bogat and Close mingling easily with artists three and four decades younger, while the older works — “Jeanne d’Arc” and Luis Cruz Azaceta’s Pop-Expressionist, ultra-violent colored pencil drawing “Killed and Robbed a Golden Tooth and His Credit Card” (1978) — jibe fluidly with those produced the day before yesterday.
Azaceta’s drawing is cannily paired with Karl Wirsum’s “Some Underwear Over the Rainbow” (2013), a two-part shaped panel of a nearly nude, taloned and tailed demon flying above a set of concentric red, yellow and orange arcs. The Azaceta drawing is closely related to the aesthetic of the Hairy Who, the group of maverick imagists out of late-Sixties Chicago that included Wirsum as member. With “Some Underwear,” the now 75-year-old Wirsum updates the Hairy Who sensibility for the 21st century, an arguably less turbulent (at least for Chicago) but more troubled time. Is the flying creature escaping to a better place, or arriving to wreak even more havoc? Either way, the imagery is fresh, droll and beautifully made.
Wirsum, Saul, Linhares, DiBenedetto, Greenwold, Apfelbaum and the other artists in this exhibition go their own way, shaping their work to fit modes of experience, not predetermined molds for art-making. Their vocabulary arises from the demotic (advertising, political cartoons, underground comix, graffiti and kitsch), and they make no apologies for its gaudiness and overkill. Their embrace of the disreputable seems to immunize them from disingenuousness; the path to fine art paved with ironic flips and luxe materials is a thousand miles from here.
As a curator, Saul may have a set of criteria nobody agrees with, but his rapid-fire choices based on the “pictorial, sensational, illusionistic, glamorous, humanistic, funny, sexual, quarrelsome, violent, ugly, etc. etc.” have presented us with a group of artists who display emotional truth in all its spattered, greasy, savage, hyperbolic glory. And that, as demonstrated by If You’re Accidentally Not Included, is an elegance all its own.
If You’re Accidentally Not Included, Don’t Worry About It continues at Zürcher Studio (33 Bleecker Street, Nolita, Manhattan) through May 3.