Los Angeles

Peter Saul: Some Crazy Pictures at David Kordansky Gallery

In an interview earlier this year, Peter Saul confessed, “I have to admit I’ve been enjoying myself. But through a large part of my life I’ve been desperately trying to think of some good reason for all this, and I haven’t really thought of a good reason. So that’s that.” Saul’s work is the kind that begs critics to ask, “But why?” while simultaneously and stubbornly resisting a clear answer. The no-man’s land between explanation and pure entertainment has been the dwelling place of his paintings—and indeed, of the artist himself—for the past six decades. Notoriously a self-proclaimed outsider artist, Saul has managed to be both deeply influential to fellow artists and marginalized by most critics and curators, up until a decade ago. Recent interest in his work puts Saul’s entire career—and particularly his most recent work, currently on view at David Kordansky Gallery—in thought-provoking dialogue with the climate of contemporary art.

Peter Saul. Singing Sandwich, 2014; acrylic on canvas; 60 x 72 inches; Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen.

Peter Saul. Singing Sandwich, 2014; acrylic on canvas; 60 x 72 in. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen.

Saturated with absurd hybrid creatures, social and political satire, and references both timely and historical, Saul’s work has always been perplexing. As a result, critiques (when they have been leveraged at all) have been overwhelmed by the need to explain, decode, and find reasons why his works were made using iconography above all else. Certainly, the lampooning of art-historical subjects through the familiar icons of American culture and politics is a huge part of Saul’s work, but such analysis tends to ignore the artist’s idiosyncratic style and technique as clear evidence of the enjoyment he clearly derives from making work—an enjoyment as deviant as the uncouth subject matter he tackles.

Some Crazy Pictures is clear evidence of an unbridled enjoyment derived from the act of painting, showcasing the specificity of style and paint-handling that Saul has perfected over the years. The nine large-scale paintings in the exhibition hover uncannily between surrealist figuration and impressionistic abstraction. Figures and objects appear to flow into and out of one another, forming compositions that keep the eye in constant motion within the frame of the canvas—each one a closed visual system like a tangled, madcap Möbius strip. The interplay of forms, paint application, and bizarre subject matter seamlessly support and reinforce one another. Since the ’80s, Saul has played with fluid forms and cultivated effects alternating between sharp-edged lines and softly brushed areas of paint. These juxtaposed forms and styles create illusions of dimensionality and texture, heightening the effects of a caustic color palette and evoking a sense of images coming into and out of focus. Intensified by the paintings’ scale, the wacky subjects beg a closer look, yet become abstracted and impossible to apprehend as a totality when the viewer complies.

Peter Saul. Mondrian Duck, 2015; acrylic on canvas; 60 x 72 inches. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen.

Peter Saul. Mondrian Duck, 2015; acrylic on canvas; 60 x 72 in. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen.

The relationship between surreal subject matter and Saul’s painting technique is well illustrated in Mondrian Duck (2015). The work’s title sets a tone of irreverence—not unlike the title of the exhibition itself—by crassly and unceremoniously identifying its subject matter. Such directness is the viewer’s first clue that the duck is a red herring (an iconographic duck decoy, if you will). The real intrigue of this work seems to lie more in trying to discern figure from ground, duck from Mondrian canvas—a wonderfully impossible task given the parts of the composition interlocked within an infinite loop of chaos. Sharpness of form gives way to painterly patches of canvas. Just as it begins to materialize, the illusion breaks, creating a visual effect that mimics the frenetic, ambiguous action of the scene.

Stylistically, Saul’s new works pay homage to MAD Magazine, which the artist has cited as an early influence. Saul’s work has always been equally conversant with the world of American television, magazines, and animation as that of fine art, forcing them into irreverent confrontation. Singing Sandwich (2014) harkens back to the Claymation style popularized in the ’80s and ’90s, showcased in the television show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and in Nickelodeon cartoons, as well as the satirical drawings of R. Crumb. Stylistic affinities are established through Saul’s unusual color palette and use of acrylic paint—a medium associated with fine art—to mimic the qualities of three-dimensional sculpted surfaces and the visual effects of lowbrow spray paint.


Peter Saul. Some Crazy Pictures, 2015; installation view, David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen.

As a young artist, Saul distinguished his work in stark contrast to the interests and aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism, inventing a visual language that would come to be associated with Pop Art. Now in his eighties, Saul has consequently enjoyed first the relative solitude of working outside the “art world” and, more recently, the embrace of that art world, of which his current exhibition at Kordansky Gallery is a shining example. The style Saul continues to employ occupies an interesting place in contemporary art practice. Young painters like Matthew Palladino, Conrad Ruiz, and Jamian Juliano-Villani indulge in color-drenched, pop-inspired figuration, recapturing styles of the now-vintage popular culture and regarding artists of Saul’s generation as standard-bearers. Figuration of this kind may be an antidote to so-called “zombie abstraction,” which is perhaps productively understood as Abstract Expressionism’s 2015 counterpart. Saul continues to occupy an anti-trend position, yet he also seems to have spurred and participated in a countertrend by doing so.

Taken on their own, Peter Saul’s new works demonstrate the artist’s continued, unapologetic enjoyment of lampooning popular and elite subjects alike, executed in an exuberant style wholly his own and shot through with fun.

Peter Saul: Some Crazy Pictures is on view at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles through June 20, 2015.