What degree of willful perversity is required to think of Peter Saul as heir to Velázquez? Perhaps as much as it takes to plunk a Peter Saul show inside the ultra-blue-chip Mary Boone Gallery, but that’s where we find ourselves on the eve of All Fool’s Day, 2012.
Unlike a later occupant of the same job, Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828), whose portrait of “The Family of Carlos IV” (ca. 1800) makes the royal household look like a pack of morons, Velázquez veiled his truths within solemn expanses of muted color set off by shimmering textures of fabric and flesh.
No raw realism here, yet the fierce magnetism of these paintings draws us in even when – as in the chilling portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650) – their looks can kill.
If Velázquez’s weapon of choice is the poisoned dart, Peter Saul (b. 1934) would seem to prefer a chainsaw, the instrument he depicts himself, in a flop sweat, wielding on a can of Campbell’s tomato soup in the bluntly titled “Peter Saul vs. Pop Art” (2012).
This painting, alone on the gallery’s south wall, directly faces “Raccoons Paint a Picture” (2011) in which said raccoons, four in number, with paintbrushes in their claws and purple fezzes atop their heads (bearing the letters PO, LL, OC and K) scramble across the picture plane, spooling out skeins of paint in the manner of you-know-who (who, of course, never used brushes to make the paintings that made him famous).
These two pictures, proudly strutting their dumb art jokes, bracket the rest of the exhibition (with the exception of the extraordinarily grotesque “The Listener,” 2011, in the entranceway), where Saul revisits the eternal verities of food, sex, money and death, often simultaneously.
For all their obviousness, “Peter Saul vs. Pop Art” and “Raccoons Paint a Picture” nail the position that the artist has staked out for himself – and which the other works in the show occupy – between painting’s two forms of conveyance: the medium and the image.
The radical departure of Jackson Pollock (1912–56) from the previous generation of abstractionists (Kazimir Malevich, 1878–1935; Wassily Kandinsky, 1866–1944; and Piet Mondrian, 1872–1944) was to embody his ideas in the act of manipulating the viscosity of paint.
The radical departure of Pop, which is, strictly speaking, a reactionary movement, from Pollock’s near-absolute abstraction is its primary reinvestment in the image – more likely than not, the mediated, mass-market image.
With the former, the first thing you see is the paint; with the latter, the first thing you see is the picture. And, as the installation at Mary Boone suggests, throughout his formidable career, Saul has been caught between the two.
His infusion of meaning into the paint itself has been understandably overshadowed by the spectacle of his imagery – which is ironic, because these two aspects of his work are entirely intertwined and dependent upon one another.
While there may be artists who possess the wherewithal to match Saul’s mental and spiritual vomitus (though his consistency over fifty years of painting is well-nigh untouchable), no one can measure up to his élan and, yes, beauty.
For it is beauty that hooks us on Saul. The extreme saturation of his color is not there simply to gin up the visual fizz, or to make the abominations committed by his rubbery-limbed figures palatable. Its presence exerts a recombinant effect on our response to his paintings’ debaucheries, fusing our regressive attraction to candy-keyed color with our repressed appetite for brutality and lasciviousness.
To be sure, Saul isn’t creating freaks for us to laugh at. His work may be a funhouse mirror, but it is still a mirror, and the more beautifully painted his creatures are, the longer we are inclined to remain in their presence and, inevitably, identify with them.
This critical disjunction – between rank offensiveness and stunning visual invention – ultimately exalts Saul’s endless parade of human and subhuman waste to tragic heights. Look at us – to quote Hamlet’s Act 2 soliloquy – “in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” And this is the way we act.
There is a difference between the current body of work, painted between 2010 and 2012, and Saul’s previous output, in that the new paintings venture into a fresh mental terrain, a stream-of-consciousness arena where nothing is justified and everything is permitted.
Unlike such recent pictures as “Viva La Difference” (2008) and “Squeeze Pimple?” (2009), Saul’s new paintings do not convey a single action or a structured, discernible theme, no matter how loony. There is no way of telling what “Shark in My Bathtub” (2011), “Here Comes the Garbage” (2012), “Deadly Diet” (2010-2011), “Snack Attack” (2011) or even “Wall Street” (2010) are really about. They are as dense and impenetrable as a deep-REM dream, and just as inescapable.
What else has changed, and what set me thinking about Velázquez, is the way that the paint is scattered across the canvas, mostly in the form of blotted brushstrokes. Saul’s heavy tonal modeling, which he has used in the past to endow his figures with clarity and weight, has given way to an iridescence of color and texture.
While Velázquez blows cool and Saul blows hot, the glimmering surfaces found in this show put me in mind of the lace collar in Velázquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja (1650), a masterpiece holding pride of place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Velázquez uses a subtle interweaving of muted chromaticism and vibrant brushwork to ascribe an indisputable nobility to de Pareja, his Moorish slave. This work, as well as his delicate rendering of María Bárbola, the dwarf in “Las Meninas” (1656), exemplify Velázquez’s gift for exploiting the medium of oil paint to dignify a social outcast.
Saul’s characters are nothing if not outcasts, embodying the dangerous thoughts and behaviors we attempt to cast out of our minds every day. And like those thoughts, they are as subversively seductive as they are sickening.
Is that why, I wonder, they seem entirely devoid of endoskeletons? If Velázquez painted with a classicizing exactitude that united body and soul and coaxed his sitter’s character to the surface, Saul’s hideous slabs of mucous and meat would seem to reverse that process, splitting the spirit from the flesh and leaving only putrefaction behind.
Take it from T.S. Eliot (“Ash-Wednesday,” 1930):
… And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject.
Just as the music of Eliot’s poetry raises his monosyllabic trail around a scattering of offal into an intoxicating tattoo, Saul’s frenzies of hyperglycemic greens, mint blues and dermal reds couple the abject excesses of his imagery with celestial radiance. The tension between these two poles is at once voluptuary and untenable.
The crux, though, is lurking between the forms, where specificity falls away and passages of pure paint move of their own accord. Where Velázquez laid down calm, majestic surfaces in full confidence of God, man and law, Saul’s glowing pigments throb like nebulae drifting through an indifferent universe. No guidance, no judgment: tragedy and folly come and go without so much as a footfall.
Peter Saul continues at Mary Boone Gallery (541 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until April 28.