Like doodles scribbled on the edges of homework, Peter Saul’s exquisitely moronic pictures (on display mostly in lithographic form at Carl Solway Gallery through December 22, 2011) have a rote yet somehow ominous quality, a blurry merger of the popular and profane. While seeming to be birthed from boredom and cynicism like punk rock, they also have the cozy innocuousness of storybooks published on the cheap. Blatant and iconic like posters at a political rally, they are also intentionally incoherent and/or hyperbolic in order to satirize political causes and rallies. In other words, as soon as you assign Saul’s works a pigeonhole in your mind they ooze out of it and plop right back into the center of your attention.
2001’s “Creeps” says it all without uttering one word. A black and white lithograph depicting all sorts of humanoid contortions, the picture is haunted by the puffy, big-eyed ghosts of R. Crumb and Matt Groening but also exhibits the high-style scatological crankiness of Philip Guston and Max Ernst. There are creepy hand-puppets, melting appendages, and farts blooming from the asses of horse and man alike. All the imagery in “Creeps” is stupid on purpose, of course, and in that purposefulness one finds a joke being told over and over again until it becomes a sort of “fuck you” chant being yelled through a megaphone in hell.
Sid Vicious once said, “Well, you know, like, I don’t really give a fuck what the general public think.” In fact, viciousness is all over the place in Saul’s world, and yet it’s a fractured, comedic Vaudevillian meanness that allows for all kinds of shenanigans without getting preachy or serious. The last thing Saul seems to want in his art is any kind of heart-felt sincerity or common sense.
1983’s “Cowboy Dentist” is a contorted combo of horse and dentist melding into each other in pink deliciousness. 2011’s “Wrong Neighborhood” is a hate-thy-neighbor fever-dream where people and things transform into horrible synecdoches of one another. The circularity and absurdity of the picture reiterate Shakespeare’s Macbeth proclamation that was pulled into the 20th Century by Faulkner: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Nothing significant or edifying happens while Saul is on watch. Even the belligerence of 1985’s overt “Politics,” featuring President Ronald Reagan, commingles the goofy naiveté of a high school newspaper editorial cartoon with a post-Apocalyptic Ronnie trying desperately to saw off his own head. It’s as if Saul understands the need to view the world in right/left, liberal/conservative political terms, while also simultaneously assaulting any simpleminded binary like that with a graffiti-ist’s impulse and an anarchist’s glee.
Often associated with Pop Art, Saul has had a long and illustrious career, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993 and being inducted into the American Academy of Arts and letters in 2010. He is able to transcend the Pop Art pigeonhole simply through pure demonic diligence. The retrospective of his lithographs at Carl Solway is a celebration of independence and cantankerousness, and each of his exquisite images salutes the need to stop making sense. Saul, in a very specific and volatile way, is telling us to get the joke, even though the joke always seems to be on us.
– Keith Banner