Peter Saul's Natural Radiant Vulgarity at the Orange County Museum of Art

I’ll have the secretion sandwich, please
Cold Sweat, 1999, Acrylic on canvas; Private collection, New York ; courtesy David Nolan Gallery, New York

The Usual Gang of Idiot
Peter Saul's natural radiant vulgarity

In the exhibition catalog for an early show of Peter Saul's work in 1964, Ellen H. Johnson employed a marvelously apt phrase to describe his art, saying it aims for a "natural radiant vulgarity." Now in his mid-70s, Saul remains as gross, obnoxious and adolescent as ever, and Lord love him for it.

He's been enjoying a critical reappraisal of late, and the Orange County Museum of Art is now presenting a Saul retrospective—some of his best-known works in all their natural, radiant, vulgar glory. Just one Saul canvas can be overwhelming. But 50 Sauls in one go is a real undertaking, one not for the timid.

Saul would've blended right in with Mad magazine's "Usual Gang of Idiots" during that publication's glory days. This isn't meant to slight Saul as a fine artist. Actually, we're guessing he wouldn't be insulted by the idea that he would've made a fine Mad man. Saul's goony, cartoony political caricatures, eyeball-searing colors and general wiseass-ery make him something of an odd man out in the modern-art world, but he would've been an odd man in with the Mad crew.

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It's easy to picture his stubbly, sweaty, polymorphously perverse little characters sandwiched between an Alfred E. Neuman cover and an Al Jaffee fold-in gag, sharing pages with the Cold War vaudeville of Spy vs. Spy and the cheery grotesquerie of Basil Wolverton. Sure, Saul's work features more jizz and crucifixions than you'd expect to find in a Mad spread, but he shares Mad's affection for snot, puke, poop and all the other stuff most of us try to keep discreetly hidden away.

When Saul was 13, he began his career with a painting of a sailor puking under a red sun. Some might say it's all been downhill from there. He's spent decades offering up his idiosyncratic takes on history and myth, grand political movements and the goofier excess of pop culture—often all at once, within a single canvas. Nothing is beneath his notice; nothing is too sacred for ridicule.

Seeing his work collected here, you can follow some changes over the years. The craft gets tighter, the colors become more lurid. But he's basically been the same troublemaker all along. In the '60s, paintings such as Donald Duck Crucifixion and Vietnam displayed a trippy, funny, pissy misanthropy that set him at odds with the comparatively genteel Pop artists. The blobby, shape-shifting anatomy of these pieces has something in common with the psychedelia of the era. But while such hippie artists as Rick Griffin did far-out stuff that played games with the nature of reality (man), Saul seemed more like a guy who had a real beef with reality—like he wanted to twist it until it broke, the better to see what was inside.

As the years wore on, he kept twisting people into weird shapes, at the same time that their flesh became more solid and real, making his attacks on humdrum reality, his corruptions of the flesh, that much more violent. The topicality of much of his later work does date it. His appropriately ghastly portraits of figures such as O.J. Simpson and Saddam Hussein could be baffling to museum-goers a few decades hence. But he does bring his own crazy spin to the jokers and rogues, a kind of comic hysteria that will keep his work compelling long after its actual subjects no longer are. His George W. Bush goes beyond the chimpy yahoo of so much political caricature and into the realm of gibbering nightmare creature.

And Saul gives us brains. Lots of paintings of big, sweaty brains, served up like a zombie banquet. They are disgusting and ugly, but they're beautiful, too, aglow with the bright, toxic colors of creatures from the bottom of the sea. And like it or not, these brains are us. The guts and the blood and the puke and the crap—it's all a part of us, every stinking drop of it. Saul stubbornly refuses to let us forget what we are: natural. Radiant. Vulgar.

"Peter Saul" at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; Call for hours. Through Sept. 21.

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