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Poster Points

Visitors to "Crime and Punishment and Other New Paintings," Peter Saul's current exhibit at Texas Gallery, are greeted by a Day-Glo rendition of the Mona Lisa blowing chunks. It's a lampoon that would work as an animated promo on cable -- a red-eyed La Gioconda turns green around the gills and gets sick, her vomit coagulating into the MTV logo. Relieved of her art-historical indigestion, she settles back to watch some videos. The painting epitomizes self-appointed bad boy Saul's attitude about high art -- that it's basically soft-core production designed to turn a buck.

For 30 years, Saul's pop-funk, allegorical paintings have stuck doggedly to presenting a legible message, often about current events, and there's nothing soft-core about them. Early examples include his lurid anti-Vietnam War paintings that showed GIs in diapers performing horrible acts -- slobbering on a hamstrung Vietnamese woman while shooting a gun into her crotch, for instance. Saul, a professor at the University of Texas, has been called a New Vulgarian, addressing politics, the women's movement, even serial killers from a psycho-socio-sexual standpoint that shares a vibe with underground comic book artists such as R. Crumb. In fact, Mona Lisa Throwup is just a light prep for the main gallery, where the real assault on decorum begins.

If political cartoons had X-rated directors' cuts, they might look like Saul's paintings. His caricatures, here of familiar personalities such as O.J. Simpson, Newt Gingrich and Jesus, pop off the canvas as if they've shot up steroids and metalflake paint. Some of them have little speech balloons, and parts of the paintings are labeled, just in case the observer can't figure out what's what. Saul's insistence on literal meaning is designed to insult the gallery-goer -- who in his mind, apparently, is a pretentious, supercilious groupie -- and provoke the public, leaving the imagination nothing but cud to chew on.

In Newt Gingrich vs. Little Orphan Annie, Annie is kicking Gingrich in the balls, saying "Don't put me in your orphan asylum," while Gingrich nibbles a wedge of pie labeled "snacks for the rich." In the background, a humanoid NRA rifle fires bullets into an NEA paintbrush. In Crime and Punishment, O.J. Simpson is strapped into a chair. He's simultaneously stabbing and having sex with a giant, blond-wigged, breasted hot dog. Johnnie Cochran pops out of the business end of O.J.'s penis with a worried look on his face. A hose and nozzle labeled "battery acid" is lodged in Simpson's arm for lethal injection. The composition is jumbled, but it's not hard to figure out what's going on.

The problem with these simple desultory philippics is that they insult intelligence more than taste. There's nothing surprising or enlightening about a battle scene between an orphan and Gingrich -- especially not the tiny penis that Saul has poking out of Gingrich's fly. And all there is to say about the O.J. painting is, well, duh. The scenario is predictable; even the painting's punch line, in which the executioner says, "Battery Asid Rilly Hertz," is a pun borrowed from the "Truth Hertz" T-shirts sold during Simpson's trial. Saul's point -- that painting needs to come down to earth and be as accessible, thrilling and provocative as other forms of entertainment -- may be valid, but he doesn't seem to be the man for the job.

Though Saul has disavowed art that's about art, in the '70s he began to reinterpret or loosely reference famous paintings, perhaps in an attempt to exonerate them from the sin of being too precious or static. Pop Art, in which several Donald Ducks with paintbrushes work on a pastel of the United States, is a reference to Jasper Johns' 1961 painting Map. In Pop Art III at Texas Gallery, Saul has eliminated the ducks, but several Dali-esque melting clocks are burrowed in among the states, disrupting the map's schema. One of the few works in the show that's more weird than gratuitous, Pop Art III is successful partly because it lacks hardheaded specificity. It could be a reassertion of surrealist values over the expressionistic brush stroke, or a warning of impending political or ecological disaster.

When he put Donald Duck in a famous painting, Saul underscored the distinction between low and high art rather than collapsing it. He wanted to hold painting up in order to bring it down, but the battle has eclipsed his efforts to make paintings that say something concrete to a broad audience. In 1967, Saul said he wanted his paintings to help good overcome evil. Now, he says, "What I really want to do is utilize politics to help my paintings be interesting." Anyone who tries so hard to deliver a message, though, should be concerned with what that message is. But Saul's agenda is clearly more about painting than content.

What high art is supposed to be able to do for us, of course, not everyone wants done. Hence the popularity of comic books, tattoos and graffiti -- work that has an immediate relationship to the popular and political. Contemporary rock poster art fits into that loose category. It's commercial, to be sure, but rock poster artists enjoy a considerable amount of artistic freedom, thanks largely to the genre's current leader Frank Kozik.

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