Maniacal Insurgency | Peter Saul

Every now and then a painter comes along who has the audacious power to say as they please, with no care as to how their visual assertions are perceived. You can imagine the artist staring right back at you, arms akimbo, “Here’s what I have to say, like it or lump it,”—or worse. You know one thing for sure, those types didn’t do well at school, they’re incapable of following rules and no doubt ruffled the feathers of tight lipped, toe–the–line professors. From the viewer’s perspective, these rare kinds of painters are exciting, enthralling, and produce mutters of, “I can’t believe this,” from slack jawed gapes of amazement. Peter Saul is such a painter; he doesn’t care what you think, and more power to him.

CB1–G is a guest venue of CB1 Gallery featuring art from national and international dealers showcasing work not often seen in Los Angeles. This fair sized room can barely contain the rollicking, bodacious pop to politicking of Saul. Twenty works are on display (with one in the back room), from oil paintings to drawings to a lone balsa wood sculpture of his early period produced in the 1960s. Saul was born in 1934, so most of the work in the exhibition was made when he was in his mid to late twenties.

Early 2011, I was fortunate to hear Peter Saul give an artist talk at the San Francisco Art Institute. After 30 minutes or so, when talking about his education—he briefly attended Stanford and San Francisco Art Institute (California School of Fine Arts)—a school representative tried to remind Saul that he was a graduate of SFAI, to which he retorted, “No, I’m not, I was kicked out before the end of the first semester.” The representative demurely tried to suggest that he was indeed considered a graduate, to which Saul emphatically countered, “I’m not a graduate of this school, I was only here briefly.”

Saul’s sardonic humor was already present in his early work. Huge unmoored phalluses roam the open air looking for wet hungry orifices to fill — I torture Commy Virgins, 1967 — willing or unwilling, it doesn’t matter—paintings are harmless. Everyone is plugged, from all angles, juices flow uncontrollably from every conceivable opening; guns, knives, and swords slash and rip at all available fleshy protrusions, tongues lash and lick accessible salty flesh.

Gun Moll, 1961, is arguably the first Pop Art painting, except that it’s too fleshy, too painterly, too much roughhousing for pop’s sanitized cleanliness. Saul got clean too, not in subject matter mind you, but moving from unruly oils to the faster drying, easy to layer acrylic paint in the 1980s, which Saul considers to be his mature period. During the sixties, Saul was heavily invested in critiquing the Vietnam War, and much of the imagery at the CB1–G show is from that period.

Saul is a pop painter, who repeatedly asserts that once pop was dead and minimalism became the standard, he was advised to drop the cartoony caricatures and deal with matters at hand. Saul refused this advice and continued doing what he did best: ridiculing everyone and everything, hating the boredom of academicism, seeing the pursuit of truth in art as stifling, tedious, and the destruction of the imagination by dull, miserable people with nothing to offer art but the antidote of freedom of expression, fun, and slightly unhinged imagination.

CB1–G tells me that Peter Saul is to have a major retrospective in Frankfurt next year. If you’re so inclined to get a good visual kick in the gonads, book a flight, and I’ll see you there.

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