Friday, April 11, 2008

Peter Saul, Painter

It has been, as predicted, an unusually busy week. I have been working to assemble not one but two hour-long segments in my "Art of Outrage" series for Artscene Visual Radio, and have had a rather hectic schedule of recorded telephone interviews. Yesterday I spoke to two artists and a museum curator, and today I have a follow-up call with one of the artists, Peter Saul, and another museum curator. It's all interesting and lively, but it means that I don't get around to thinking about The Buddha Diaries and the blogosphere as much as I would like.

I have admired Peter Saul's work for many years. In fact, I have lived with an early work of his--a large-ish untitled 1960 pastel drawing--on the wall of my house. Ellie and I first borrowed, then inherited it from her parents, who bought it at a long-defunct Los Angeles gallery probably around the time that it was made. Like all of Saul's work, it is lively, energetic, full of spontaneous humor, and thoroughly engaging to the eye. After at least twenty, and perhaps even thirty years, I continue to explore it with the same pleasure, and never fail to find something new in it to surprise me.

In the line of the German expressionist artist, Georg Grosz, Saul is unafraid to jump into politics and social issues with both feet. He lampoons politicians, plutocrats, exploiters of human frailties of all sorts with unabashed zest. At one level, his work is cheerfully scatalogical, erotic, finger-pointing, satirical, parodic, absurd... all in a joyful welter of color and image that imposes itself rudely on the viewer's eye and skewers his cherished prejudices and beliefs.

What I discovered yesterday, somewhat to my surprise, is that his impulse is not primarily one of outrage. He was clear, in our conversation, that he is primarily a painter, doing what all painters do--that is, indulging their own inner need to put paint on canvas and shove it around to create an object to his own satisfaction. What's likely to come out is what's on his mind, and for Saul that has to do with his observations of what's happening in the world around him. It's not so much a matter of coming up with a political statement about, say, the incompetence and inanities of George W. Bush, as it is of having fun with paint on canvas with George W. Bush featured as its subject. Far from being angry with Bush, as many of us are, Saul expressed his infinite gratitude to the current occupant of the White House for providing him with an endless source of material.

(He had fun from Ronald Reagan, too. I purloined this image from the George Adams Gallery website.)

Talking to him, I found that sense of fun extraordinarily appealing--and refreshing. That attitude does tend to put it all into perspective. When you get right down to it, the important thing is for each of us to do what's given us to do to the best of our ability. Which is why I play around with words in something of the same spirit, I hope, as Saul plays around with paint. It's a matter of each of us using our given medium to find out what it is we need to say.

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