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Peter Saul has an uncanny ability to seamlessly combine the hilarious and the hideous to great effect. In the middle of chortling at one of his wacky, indecorous paintings, you are apt to suddenly notice an odd and even disturbing detail. Saul may come off as a jaunty humorist, but beneath this jolly lighthearted veneer seethes a volcano of well-honed gripes, peeves, impertinence, skepticism, and outrage, none of which are petty. His ability to transform fervent indignation into comical absurdity is amply evident when he takes on masterworks of French academic painting, as he does in his recent exhibition, Peter Saul: Six Classics, at Mary Boone (November 7–December 18, 2015).
The paintings Saul skewers include Alexandre Cabanel’s “The Birth of Venus” (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), Hyacinthe Rigaud’s full-length portrait “Louis XIV” and Théodore Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” (both in the Louvre), all of which he saw while he was living in Paris (1958–62). This is where he met the Chilean surrealist, Roberto Matta, and, in 1958, he first flipped through the pages of Mad and came across the weird distortions of Basil Wolverton, a cartoonist and religious fanatic who also influenced Ken Price. In an unpublished recorded interview conducted by Victoria Lautman (WBEZ, Chicago, ca. 1996), Saul stated that the cartoon style is:
[…] the modern way to draw, any other style is copying from the last century
This is not the first time he has brought his rapier wit to bear on at least two paintings in the exhibition. In 1975, he depicted his version of Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” showing a capsized rowboat and Washington riding a horse nonchalantly through the mayhem, waving a tiny American flag. He did a version of Gericault’s “The Raft of Medusa” in a similarly titled painting dated 1990–92, and in 1997 he did a deranged variation of Cabanel’s “Birth of Venus” in which a deformed character with three breasts and a leg for a nose is lighting a cigar, while announcing: “I ain’t no anchovy.” Was I disappointed that Saul revisited subjects and themes he had done earlier in his career? Not at all.
In fact, I became interested in what Saul was doing differently, how he saw a narrow, almost hackneyed subject freshly. In both versions of “The Raft of Medusa,” Saul depicts a shark chomping on someone’s leg, while a man slices up and eats a dead shipmate. If there is someone who can look despair and deprivation in the eye and make it funny, it is Saul. In the recent version, which he telling titled “Last Moments on the Raft of Medusa” (2015), no one in his cast of weirdos is waving to a ship in the distance. They are completely alone at sea and help is not on the way
The one addition Saul has made is an orange-red, rubbery octopus wrapping its tentacles around a hapless survivor with lavender-colored skin. In another context, you might think this an example of interspecies sex, one inhuman and the other hapless. Nearby, a man is waving a tiny French flag — an act of pure, forlorn hopelessness — while stroking another man’s pointy, hairless head. The tenderness seems bizarre and pathetic rather than noble and uplifting. This is what makes Saul so good — for all the garish colors and peculiar deformations his characters have been subjected to, he is attentive to all the details. Nothing is glided over, nothing goes unconsidered, down to the shape and size of the shark’s teeth, which suggest Saul has paid a lot more attention to an actual shark’s teeth than one might suspect.
It is one thing to be an iconoclast and quite another to continue to be wildly inventive while relentless need drives you to poke fun at everything society might cherish and hold dear. Other artists — many of them influenced by Saul — have tried to be indecorous, but few are able to arrive at the exquisite synthesis of the comical and repugnant that he routinely achieves, seemingly without effort. I think the reason that Saul is so good at what he does goes beyond his mastery as a painter. It is one thing to make fun of your characters because you believe that you are superior to them, and quite another to feel empathetic to their hopeless condition. This is what Saul does so well. He reminds us that we are no better than the vaudeville clowns reacting frantically while the world is crashing down around them. Hysteria isn’t as foreign to us as we think. We might as well laugh at ourselves now, because the next time we might be too panicked to do so.
I also wondered if Saul, who has previously made of fun of critics (Clement Greenberg) and artists (Frank Stella) before, isn’t also doing so in “Birth of Venus” (2015), which is his riff on Cabanel, but also perhaps a sly spoof of Bill Jensen’s Transgressions paintings in which he simplified and abstracted an exhaustive scene from Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment” (Sistine Chapel, 1536–41), shown in the front room of his last show at Cheim and Read earlier this year. Saul’s depiction of different-colored breasts and hands, disembodied eyes, and green-sandaled feet protruding from the reddish ectoplasm eerily echoes the heavily outlined feet, legs and hands jutting out of the twisted, outlined mass in Jensen’s appropriation of Michelangelo. The difference is that Saul’s painting is a send-up, while Jensen’s is an attempt to subdue and possess the Italian master’s muscular forms.
Saul, who is a serious artist, knows better than to take what he does too seriously, because that can lead to a self-inflated view of what it means to be a painter, not to mention pomposity and bombast. In “Louis XIV Feeds His Pets” (2015), he takes on the beloved court painter, Hyacinthe Rigaud, who did dozens of versions after his well-known “Portrait of Louis XIV” (1701), which is in the Louvre, where he most likely saw it when he was a young artist. Like Rigaud, who paid loving attention to the foppish monarch’s over-the-top attire, right down to his red shoe buckles, Saul is equally attentive to his flowing, overlong robes, shoe buckles (also red), and to his three, pink, fuzzy pups, which reminded me of used bedroom slippers. The dogs are Saul’s addition, and they bring the haughty monarch back down to earth. By taking on a cliché by a talented flatterer, Saul reminds us why so many viewers are still hung up on resemblance and likeness; they want sycophantic praise. The hungry dogs add an offbeat note that infuses the scene with a good-natured humor.
In “Two Napoleons Crossing the Alps” (2015), Josephine and Napoleon are making their escape on horseback. She is holding a sword aloft, while Napoleon — in a parody of his well-known pose — slips his hand into her blouse to cop a feel. The heroic becomes domestic, which is its opposite. Saul seems especially motivated to make exaggerated pastiches of well-known, academic paintings that celebrate heroes and heroism. His spoofs call to mind an unlikely association, Pablo Picasso’s many parodies of Edouard Manet’s “The Luncheon on the Grass” (1862) and Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” (1656). While it might seem farfetched to compare Saul to Picasso, I think that their many parodies, burlesques and caricatures share something. For one thing, both artists are mocking themselves as much as they are caricaturing the work of others. In doing so, they admit to all sorts of feelings, from praise to envy to love. This is what I think is underlying the volcano stirring inside Saul. As much as they mock decorum and pretense, the self-serving and the heroic, his paintings are also wonderfully buffoonish expressions of unrequited love for the artists and art that preceded him, from the flawless bodies of Cabanel (who was Manet’s teacher) to the groveling adulation of Rigaud. Saul’s gift for bringing such deeply contradictory feelings into play, all while remaining attentive to the formal demands of his ludicrous vision of necessary distortion, places him in a class that is his alone. He is the great humorist of our troubled, troubling epoch.
Peter Saul: Six Classics continues at Mary Boone (541 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 18.