By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Minimalism was gazillion more apolitical than Pop, which — contextually — was gazillion more apolitical than Abstract Expressionism. But context was already Saul’s nemesis. The same ambiguity that allowed both Pollock’s drips and Lichtenstein’s dots to be read as symbols of freedom and inclusiveness — while coincidentally looking great over the couch and making a fantastic conversation starter — could easily enfranchise the positive initial reception of Saul’s softly rendered piles of material goods as harbingers of the American way. Things had to change.
Much has been made of Saul’s subsequent shift to more explicit content — recognizable celebrities, political figures, historical events and other artworks — and this development seems superficial compared to his work’s simultaneous but less-mentioned stylistic transformation from accumulations of Milton Avery–esque Post-it notes to obsessively modeled three-dimensional pointillist orgies of extruded puppet extremities. From the crude, collagelike elegance of Bathroom Sex Murder (1961) to the hydraulically choreographed oozings of Typical Saigon (1968),this queasy modulation from deceptively sloppy Brut formalism into kitschy faux-airbrush obsessiveness is at least as topical as any of the narrative political content.
Probably more so, given the narrowness of his target audience — the painting establishment for which the convoluted dimensionality and systematic modeling technique of Saul’s late cartoon illusionism were a deliberate affront to sacrosanct conventions of Modernist flatness. At the same time, Saul embraced a so-wrong pallet of acidic near-fluorescent primaries, ensuring the paintings’ formal aspects were armed with the same lurid impropriety as their subject matter. Even this aspect of the work — the joyous wallowing in taboo stereotypes of sex, violence and power — can be seen to be directed at Automatist Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism’s claims to embody uncensored communiqués from the unconscious. Squiggles? Drips? I got your uncensored communiqué right here, pal!
It worked on me. Although they never failed to make me laugh, I never cared much for Saul’s later works. That is, until I saw them in person at OCMA. Saul’s late style of dimensional stippling derives largely from pulp illustration, and, as such, translates effectively into magazine and catalog reproductions. What I didn’t understand viscerally until I saw the paintings in the flesh was the continuity in terms of subtlety and craft in paint handling, composition and color. What had been pushed to the surface of the picture plane in 1962 is still there, only now it doesn’t seem quite so proud of itself. And it’s not so sure its cleverness and beauty justify the inequities that it depicts — inequities that prop up any art object’s position as a bankable embodiment of virtue balanced at the pinnacle of civilization. You wouldn’t know it from the surface, but stuffed into these writhing coils of bitter sausage is this summer’s must-see West Coast painting show. To get at it, you just have to be able to deal with the outrage, the humor and the traffic on the 405.
PETER SAUL | Orange County Museum of Art | 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach | Through Sept. 21