Peter Saul’s “The Government of California” 1969. Oil on canvas, 68 × 96 in (172.7 × 243.8 cm) Collection KAWS
at The New Museum, New York
Smooth Criminal: The Mad Deep Lit Report
“I’m smooth, but not a criminal” – Michael Jackson
Prior to New York City museums and galleries temporarily closing down, this writer was fervently reading the dizzying temperature of an art world in full throttle. What she uncovered was the dominance of the figure in myriad contortions (and proportions). From squeezing, pinching, sword-fighting, inflating and deflating, the portrayal of the figure saw no limits. Is it helter-skelter? Notions of rape, pillage and picnic were up for grabs. Artists continued to push the envelope from over-the-top caricature to – ahem – “slippery-when-wet”.
The New Museum presents “Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment”
“My paintings are meant as a kind of ‘cold shower’ for other people, to make them aware of their own feelings, or “social skin.”
– Peter Saul
“Vietnam” Oil on canvas (1966) Collection of the artist.
The New Museum brings a dazzling retrospective of an artist who has remained under-the-radar but has contributed to the canon of American painting for decades. Peter Saul’s work brings to mind graffiti, digital art, and graphic novels, an approach long practiced before these forms of expression found their way into popular culture. Filled with day-glo colors that detonate like dynamite, the paintings, particularly those of the US conflict with Vietnam, are poignant. He brings to the fore unsavory facets of American history that he found unpalatable. We see this in his criticism of abuses carried out by soldiers; In “Vietnam”, for instance, oranges reverberate like alarm bells. A GI, in full swagger, sprouts multiple arms. His ambidextrous abilities allow him to operate machine-gun fire, while simultaneously exposing his crotch. The flagrant cartoon-like depiction undercuts the seriousness of his subject matter:
“Peter Saul’s paintings and drawings about the Vietnam War are some of the earliest and most powerful responses to the conflict by an American artist. Although the United States had been indirectly involved in the fighting between North and South Vietnam since the mid-50’s, the government only sent ground troops in March 1965. Saul began producing works about the war later that year.. [at the Allan Frumkin Gallery in New York.] He had a show of larger Vietnam paintings which he intended as a show of opposition to both the war and what he saw as the frivolity of the peace movement. Instead of accepting the US invasion as a necessary and noble fight against the spread of communism, as politicians claimed it was, Saul depicts the US military as driven by lust for violence and by the racism and greed inherent in American culture. He employs an over-the-top style in order to shock his audience, whom he felt had fallen into complacency about the horrors of war.”
– Statement, The New Museum, New York.
“Self-Portrait with Two Pupils” by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1785) / “Woman’s Arts” Acrylic on canvas (1981-82)
In “Woman’s Arts” (1981-82), the artist is a master at farce. Lampooning the genre of self-portraiture, he paints a figure as an imploding buffoon. Outlandish and slapstick, a globular figure, sports an artists’ beret. Brushes fly about while the easel wears a shoe! “Woman’s Arts” is comical and grotesque. Any classical reference to chiaroscuro, as in the Labille-Guiard portrait, is eschewed in favor of faux wood finishes.
Sargent’s Daughters presents “Sarah Slappey: Power Play”
“Pearl Drip” (2020) Oil on canvas 48 x 44 in. / “Pearl Splash” (2020) Oil on canvas 49 x 55 in.
There are no faux wood finishes in “Power Play”, Sarah Slappey’s first solo show at Sargent’s Daughters, New York. Far from it.
Slick, undulating, pressed together and in-your-face, the bulbous forms are oddly reminiscent of hot-dog balloons filled to capacity. Keeping within a limited palette of muted pinks, beige and pearl, the artist ruminates on the figure, particularly on the area of female breasts. They float upward, prod and stand erect as exclamation points. Undeniably erotic, the subject matter is reduced to erogenous zones. Pearls and light sprinkling of fluid suggest coitus. The slick photorealistic finish removes any notion of warmth. A viewer feels claustrophobic given the inescapable scale and preponderance of flesh.
The New Museum presents “Screen Series: Kate Cooper”
“The image of women is constantly changing..What is my relationship to these images and the way they’re represented? It’s about being agile as they are constantly shifting and performing. It’s not about identification but instead about how we participate in these images.”
– Kate Cooper
A different power play unravels in “Screen Series” by emerging contemporary artist Kate Cooper. She “employs computer-generated imagery (CGI) typically used in commercial production, to create worlds populated by digital figures who perform human actions…Her protagonists perform to soundtracks by Soraya Lutangu, aka Bonaventure…They bleed, bruise, and get sick, displaying a fragility that belies their presumed immortality – and perhaps offers a way of resisting the demand of the digital capitalist economy.”. – Statement, The New Museum.
“Infection Drivers” By Kate Cooper (2019)
In “Infection Drivers” (2019), a woman is held hostage inside a translucent suit that breathes in and out. Our heroine is subjugated and misshapen by a second skin that enlarges and expands to the point of bursting. Made to appear grotesque and panting heavily, she straddles the line between masculine and feminine. Our protagonist is bruised and scarred. In “Symptom Machine” (2017), she strenuously pulls herself along a conveyor belt to keep from dismounting. Cooper makes a statement on the ironic inhumanity of a digitized figure struggling to keep pace on an edifice slipping out from under her.
“Symptom Machine” By Kate Cooper (2017)
“Oopsy” (2018) Acrylic on canvas at the Garth Greenan Gallery
Garth Greenan Gallery presents “Gladys Nilsson: Honk! Fifty Years of Painting”
“I’m not interested in classical beauty – or, I am interested in classical beauty, it’s just that my idea of classical beauty might be completely different from someone else’s.”
– Gladys Nilsson
Whereas waking into a room of Peter Saul paintings may make a viewer feel as if they have been pussywhipped into shape, there is an opposite feel of tranquility and unquenchable joy when seeing the works of this dedicated colorist for the first time. Think bacchanalian splendor. “Gladys Nilsson: Honk! Fifty Years of Painting” is a triumphant retrospective of an artist who has plugged away for decades. A viewer is moved to believe in the power of painting. Resplendent of figures romping in fields and meadows, the works burst with color – colors unseen elsewhere – viridian green, cerulean blue, lavender. Joyful storybook panache comes to life:
‘The figures who populate Nilsson’s paintings from the last two years are almost indistinguishable at times: large-nosed, thick-trunked, with long, lumpy limbs. The women tend to have bosoms that bounce and flop. Their physical bodies are squeezed and pinched to fit inside the compositions, and every inch of the surface is filled with lively color.”
From ArtNet News “Painter Gladys Nilsson Got Her Start as a Member of Chicago’s Hairy Who Now, at 79, She’s Ready to Shine on Her Own.” – Caroline Goldstein
“Tidy Up!” (2018) Acrylic on canvas 60 x 40 in. at the Garth Greenan Gallery
While the museum and gallery merry-go-round has come to an abrupt stop, this new climate will reveal the importance of social media as artists are forced to retreat to Instagram not only as a marketing tool but as a medium in and of itself.