Madcap Peter Saul is our William Hogarth, Honoré Daumier, Hieronymus Bosch, and Basil Wolverton rolled into one glorious, outrageous, nutty, rambunctious painter. Some artists get the honor of having their work displayed in the White House, but chances are Saul will never be one of them, no matter who the occupant is. You know he deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but will never get it.
In the 1960s, Saul titled two of his paintings, “Mickey Mouse vs. The Japs” (1962) and “I Torture Commie Virgins” (1967). The 1970s brought “Crucifixion of Angela Davis” (1973). In 1990, he did a painting titled “Legal Abortion,” and in 1993, he did one of Jeffrey Dahmer strapped into an electric chair, celebrating his birthday with a cake made from a butchered male pelvis.
Saul’s recurring subject is pain and abuse of all kinds — what we inflict on others and do to ourselves. It seems that the only way he can embrace these often monstrous subjects, and whatever they stir up in him, is with scandalous humor. This is why such distinctions as tasteful and tasteless seem beside the point when looking at and thinking about Saul’s garish work, which is just one reason why he is such an important artist. He also happens to be an amazing colorist and terrific caricaturist. More than socially conscious, he is a formally inventive artist with a deep love for toppling sacred cows and pushing everyone’s buttons. In his hands, painting and paint become a platform for preposterous visual proposals.
This is the America that Saul has never shied away from, never failed to poke, probe, or give the finger to — a self-righteous country that has been in a race war ever since intolerant religious freedom seekers landed on the Eastern seaboard and began slaughtering Native Americans in the name of God. I love the fact that he keeps hammering away at everything a well-behaved citizen, whether of a liberal or conservative political persuasion, would have an informed opinion about — Abstract Expressionism, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, fast food, sweaty businessmen, big-breasted women, or capital punishment. Saul has a quarrel with the world and he isn’t above using puerile humor, ghastly bad taste, or in-your-face grotesquerie to nettle it.
Just when you thought it was safe to walk into a gallery and pretend to be shocked or titillated, you turn the corner and see his ludicrous portrait of art world arbiter Clement Greenberg as “Clemunteena Gweenburg” (1971), an androgynous figure simultaneously pleasuring and sodomizing him/her self with paint brushes. Lots of artists try to be confrontational or shocking, but very few have ever publicly shot themselves in the foot while laughing loudly, clearly, and heartily.
So when I heard that Peter Saul: Fake News was opening at Mary Boone (September 9 – October 28, 2017), I headed over there before the opening, eager to see what he had cooked up since America had elected a disgustingly narcissistic, racist bully as President. There were two paintings in which the President’s unmistakable head appears more than once, “Quack-Quack, Trump” (2017) and “Donald Trump in Florida” (2017).
In “Quack-Quack, Trump,” there are three of him. In the lower left corner he is firing pistols at ducks popping out of his coiffed yellow hair; Directly above his combover, a huge, boxing-gloved, airborne hamburger lands a punch on his face. In the lower right corner he appears as a head flying through the air, chasing money. Meanwhile, a duck popping out of the hamburger bun is accompanied by a comic strip speech balloon filled with the words “quack, quack,” apparently in greeting toward an approaching one eyed, misshapen head flying a plane whose fuselage is a finger (this pilot gives a flying fuck). His speech balloon, in response, contains only a question mark.
Hmmm. We see a man, appearing three times, being walloped by a hamburger, flying fruitlessly after money, and trying to shoot the ducks hiding in his hair. The painting is funny in a horrible way and horrible in a funny way. If Philip Guston saw Richard Nixon as a tragic figure, Saul recognizes that there is nothing redeeming about the 45th President.
In “Donald Trump in Florida,” Saul presents the viewer with two Trump heads, both of them on the far right side of painting, close to the edge. The lower head is growing out of the neck of a lizard that is perched on a wayward palm tree, which is poking in from the lower right corner. His smug face is a sickly olive green. At the top of the painting there is an alligator — his hair is clearly Trump’s — stretched out, gobbling money. Below the alligator, a fighter jet piloted by a grinning crocodile fires projectiles at the Trump head hovering just above the lizard man. Another crocodile is chomping on an anonymous man’s legs.
Saul sees the President as a predatory crocodile — a cold-hearted creature incapable of empathy. There are six paintings in the exhibition, all of them irreverent. They riff on self-importance, make fun of Rembrandt, laugh at climate change because it is all too real. Saul’s impertinence is a frontal, no-holds-barred attack. I want him to keep it up. I want to see how far he can go. I want him to know that I am cheering him every step of the way. I don’t think Saul can be too tasteless when it comes to this disgusting regime.
Peter Saul: Fake News continues at Mary Boone (541 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 28, 2017),