Is Peter Saul’s Gross-Out Painting Political?

Jackson Arn at Art in America:

One of the earliest mature works in the exhibition, Sex Deviate Being Executed (1964), is also one of Saul’s best. Completed around the same time that Andy Warhol was obsessing over similar material, it shows a gay man smoking a cigarette as he sits in an electric chair. Simple moralistic interpretations get lost in the scene’s queasy virtuosity: the man’s stark profile; his thick, almost monumental arm, which resembles the haunch of an Egyptian sphinx; the decaying blue of his skin against the chair’s lilac. Here and throughout the galleries, the wall texts insist on simple moralistic interpretations anyway—apparently, this painting is about how homophobia, nationalism, and capital punishment are bad, and how a victim “maintains his dignity” in the face of death. The choice of words is unintentionally hilarious, since they appear just a few paces away from a decidedly undignified painting by the name of Human Dignity (1966), in which the title is scrawled on a pair of heaving, planetary breasts. Trust the show’s didactics and you could see Saul as a rough-around-the-edges liberal crusader—but you’d have to ignore the actual works.

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