PETER SAUL: Fake News
MARY BOONE GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 9 – OCTOBER 28, 2017
How is satire even possible in the age of Tr*mp, when his words and deeds, in their shamelessness, parody themselves? Peter Saul’s new paintings, with their hyperactive, surrealist blend of Pop Art, art history, and political commentary, gave a pretty good answer in his latest show, Fake News. Saul’s paintings stake out no new ground. Rather, the ground has moved under our feet; Saul’s savage sensationalism seems of a piece, and no longer in tension with his self-professed instincts as a history painter. His inclinations and talents seem made-to-order for representing the chaotic and tawdry venality of forty-five’s antics as the Commander-in-Chief. Arias of outraged defiance, flying severed limbs, DayGlo colors, distorted cartoons of our current president, and more, seem like a sane and measured response to the normalization of the obscene circus that is the current political climate in Washington.
Saul has also channeled his sardonic humor over the course of his career into sending up warhorses from the canon of Western painting, and Fake News gives two examples. Nightwatch II (2016) is a return to the eponymous Rembrandt painting he first parodied in the ‘70s. In this case, he replaces the people in his first version with cartoon ducks. At the same time, he crops the original composition and makes it more chaotic. The second is Blue Boy with Ice Cream Cone (2017), Saul’s take on Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, which was also a historicizing work. The boy in question is dressed in 17th-century clothing in homage to Anthony van Dyck. The aristocratic hauteur of the original subject gets recycled here into an image of sloppy consumption as the boy devours a cone of melting orange ice cream. Saul makes these art historical quotations entirely his own through his Pop Art-inflected brand of humor, sophisticated distortions of form, and electric color. Yet, as is often the case with parodists, the fact that he would bother to lampoon them at all implies a grudging acknowledgement of their importance, if not a measure of respect. In any event, his mockery does a service in bringing new life to images that have become clichés.
In the two paintings in Fake News that feature our dear leader, there is no sense of respect, only contempt honed to a razor’s edge. Quack-Quack, Trump (2017) lays out in heroic scale a hallucinogenic scene of the president fighting off a gigantic hamburger infested with cartoon ducks by shooting at more ducks nesting in his own hair. The image distills the self-destructive paranoia, malevolent pettiness, and aimless incompetence that pervade this White House. The kinetic, all-over composition, which Saul, an avowed admirer of De Kooning, has always favored, heightens the turbulent futility of the narrative.
At the same scale but even more dense, the composition to Donald Trump in Florida (2017) converges on a series of alligators sporting the president’s coiffure. The central one has bloody legs dangling from his mouth. Another chews his way through a mouthful of dollars, and a third, sunning himself on a fallen palm tree, has a human head bearing the president’s signature rictus. The man who campaigned on draining the swamp is (as anyone who has been following his career already knows) the biggest swamp critter of them all—a reptilian monstrosity inured to corruption, incapable of seeing beyond his snout, animated purely by personal gain and naked aggression toward anyone who would seek to thwart him. Indeed, Florida itself, home to Tr*mp’s “summer White House,” makes for a perfect metaphor, as its problems threaten to swamp the rest of the United States, given the likely impact of this president’s policies: ecological disasters in the making, inflated Ponzi-scheme real estate markets, pay-to-play politics, lax gun laws, and more. Fortunately for us, as long as Saul continues to paint, he will undoubtedly bear witness, like a latter-day Goya, to the toxic fallout from this administration. The bad news is that he will have plenty of material to work with.
is an artist and has an MFA from the School of Visual Arts Art Practice program. He is a frequent contributor to Artseen.