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.
Kozik, a former Austinite, was inspired by the works of the '60s poster artists who prepared broadsheets for the likes of Bill Graham's Electric Ballroom. Those posters of the '60s served as more than just invitations to a concert; they were invitations to the counterculture as well. Kozik wanted '90s posters to have a similar reach and be less concerned with a particular band than with the attitudes of their audience. He paved the way for a resurgence of the form by devising a system in which bands and promoters receive free posters, and the rest are sold by a distributor. A handful of artists -- including Houston's Charlie Hardwick, known on his posters only as "Uncle Charlie" -- have followed hot on his heels. Paraphernalia Frame Gallery, a Montrose gallery and frame shop, is currently showcasing Uncle Charlie's fun-house-bright, graphically clean work, designed for bands such as Sonic Youth, Green Day, Gwar and Metallica.
One of the more interesting things about Kozik's system is that record companies and bands themselves are rarely involved in the poster design, making it mainly the artist's expression. The best of the current poster artists mix Zeitgeist with tradition, contributing to both a slow progression of the genre and a sometimes heavy reliance on cliche. For example, Uncle Charlie's poster for The Presidents of the United States of America features a bratty young boy with a wide grin. Look closely, and you'll see that his pupils are actually skulls, a rock and roll standard given new life.
One critic remarked that Saul's paintings take "revenge against a pretentious but incurious public." Similarly, Uncle Charlie's work takes revenge against a style-obsessed but incurious public of his own. That public includes the band itself, often an oblique target of Uncle Charlie's designs. One of his most popular posters is a design for Green Day that features a Looney Tunes Martian holding a lit bomb behind his back. Gun barrels point at him from every direction. In the lower right-hand corner, a hand proffers a wad of bills. Is the little man about to sell out? Uncle Charlie says the image reflects the fact that Green Day was under a lot of pressure after they went big. So much pressure, they signed off on this poster without thinking to ask any questions.
A look at the prints and artist's proofs on display at Paraphernalia reveals that Uncle Charlie is a solid designer, using clean, thickly inked forms to fully activate a poster without crowding it. Like Saul, he focuses on images while his style remains fairly consistent. Bug-eyed kids wielding slingshots and thugs with guns loom out of the picture plane.
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These posters don't make explicit judgment calls. Uncle Charlie depicts women as voluptuous blowup dolls, and if any irony is present, it may as well be an accident. In one Nirvana poster, a svelte young thing poses in bondagewear. In a dark Metallica poster, a woman's eyes are clamped shut with wired mechanical gizmos, the virgin either in the clutch of the dynamo or about to have a sweet cyberdream. In a poster done for L-7 and the Melvins, Uncle Charlie was a bit more conscientious -- maybe because L-7 is a grrrl band. A bare minimum of detail -- hardwood floor, no furniture -- sets the scene in a low-rent apartment. A naked man is tiptoeing up behind a bikinied bombshell and can't see that she's wearing a sinister gas mask. The woman is dehumanized, but at least there's more to her than meets the eye.
In most of these posters, we are presented with snapshots, but no point of view. Uncle Charlie uses this ambiguity to poke fun at consumer culture without holding himself above it. A Hammerhead poster features a red-faced devil in a suit saying to a nubile woman, "Look, trust me on this one!" Is this a boss talking to a secretary? A politician to a voter? Uncle Charlie to ticket buyers? Obviously, we're not supposed to trust the boss or the politician, so should we trust the uncle? Just as Peter Saul uses images to service his agenda, Uncle Charlie Hardwick uses them to promote concerts. But to his credit, and unlike Saul, he admits it in the work.
"Crime and Punishment and Other New Paintings" will show through May 18 at Texas Gallery,2012 Peden, 524-1493.
"The Art of Uncle Charlie" will show through June 30 at Paraphernalia Frame Gallery,2602 Waugh, 521-3625.