Monday, March 9, 2009

Peter Saul at the CAC

Peter Saul is the neglected clown prince of Pop, the problem child of an American art movement eternally synonymous with Andy Warhol. Along with Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Saul was one of its pioneers, but he ended up more of a cult figure. His talent is flamboyantly self-evident, yet now in his mid-70s, he is getting his first major survey exhibition in two decades, thanks to curator Dan Cameron.

A San Francisco native, Saul evolved in the early 1960s not in the classic Pop mode of Warhol or Lichtenstein, but rather in the more visceral, wrenchingly surreal direction of the Hairy Who genre of Chicago Imagism. It was his then-Chicago-based dealer Alan Frumkin who, in effect, discovered him and gave him his first major gallery show.

Another reason Saul has always been sort of an outsider is because he really likes vomit, excreta and viscera, and his canvases often ooze with them amid his usual manic mix of tormented cartoonlike figures. Although his paintings became more polished over the years, he maintained striking thematic continuity. His circa-1964 Donald Duck Crucifixion, depicting a very stylized version of the Disney character on a cross, is a classic of creepy-crawly surrealism, less irreverent than over the top, with meaty tendrils like props from a horror movie. The 1979 work Double De Kooning Ducks, top, is Saul's flamboyant riff on De Kooning's abstract 1950s paintings of women.

But because his jarringly visceral style works best when probing the parameters of unreason, Saul is at his best in political paintings, especially his horrific Vietnam series and his lustily bloody Columbus Discovers America (pictured), where the unintended consequences of empire come back to haunt us like nightmares from the depths of history-book hell.

-D. Eric Bookhardt

Peter Saul: From the 1960s to the Present
Through April 5
Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528-3800;

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