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Mario Cutajar


“He hated the new generation with all the energy in him. They were frightful clodhoppers who seemed to find it necessary to talk and laugh boisterously in restaurants and cafés. They jostled you on sidewalks without begging pardon. They pushed the wheels of their perambulators against your legs, without even apologizing.”
--J.K. Huysmans, “À rebours”

Back-to-back visits to the Peter Saul retrospective at the Orange County Museum of Art and the Sterling Ruby show at MOCA at the Pacific Design Center got me wondering if grief might not be the real taboo in contemporary art. Transgression and irony are staples. But in a country where antidepressants are the most prescribed drugs, the representation of loss seems more problematic.

On the occasion of Saul’s inclusion in MOCA’s “Hand-Painted Pop,” back in 1993, Michael Duncan wrote of “wacky canvases like ‘Bathroom Sex Murder’ (1961) [that] leap out of the Ab-Ex era with the taboo-toppling energy of contemporary bad-boy art.” The show at OCMA fleshes out that glimpse of Saul’s early work with a range of paintings from throughout his career, and reveals the sharp stylistic shift that took place in his work at the end of the ‘60s. If his early work was, by the standards of the day, lurid and vulgar, it was, nonetheless, still rooted in the painterly language of Abstract Expressionism. Its real, poke-in-the-eye vulgarity emerged when Saul dispensed with the sensuality of the earlier paint handling in favor of a pitiless three-dimensional clarity. The results were sharply-delineated, acid-hued cartoons, the unpleasantness of whose subject matter is magnified by the unpleasantness of the facture---a precise, obsessive stippling derived from pulp illustration.

Peter Saul, “Bush at Abu Ghraib,”
2006, acrylic on canvas, 78 x 90".

Francisco Goya, “The Burial of the Sardine
(Corpus Christi Festival on Ash Wednesday),”
1812-1819, oil in panel, 32 1/2" x 24 1/2".

A few choice samples: “Ethel Rosenberg in the Electric Chair” (1987) depicts Rosenberg at the moment of electrocution with flames gushing out of her eyes. “Subway 1” (1979) is a Rube Goldberg-like sequence of wounding and mutilation. “The Execution of O.J.” (1996) shows the sweating accused murderer strapped to a chair and being injected with battery acid as his heart leaps out of his chest in the form of an enormous, Johnny Cochcran–headed erection encased in a hot dog bun. A pair of breasts (presumably Nicole’s) emerge from the underside of the bun as the famous missing knife, still in O.J.’s hand, gashes the cleavage. The more recent “Bush at Abu Ghraib” (2007) shows the grinning frat boy prez sticking his finger into a prisoner whose face has been literally rearranged into a mess of gristle and bullet-pierced flesh. The overall effect of these paintings recalls the Beat-inflected, jivey sadism of James Ellroy.

Young male artist friends who’ve seen the Saul show tend to affect the standard hipster response of cool bemusement.  Christopher Knight professed to discover in the Abu Ghraib picture “a haunted meditation on the depths of human cruelty.”  I beg to differ. Cruelty for Saul is merely the propulsive force of cartoon slapstick. It is a dehistoricized and depoliticized cruelty, the universal constant of mayhem.  Judging from this show, history from the fall of Constantinople to Abu Ghraib is a marathon cartoon festival. Biff! Pow! Wham! Splat! Thud! 

Despite the provocative nature of his subject matter, Saul is a resolutely antipolitical artist. And, I imagine, this is the source of his work’s hipster appeal: that implicit smirk behind every image of horror, that smirk that invites the viewer to enjoy the spectacle and smirk in return. This is Saul’s shortcoming as an artist. It is a shortcoming that eclipses his considerable strength as a painter. A truly great artist like Goya could unflinchingly take in and record the spectacle of human ignorance and barbarism without condescension. Goya does not smirk. That is why when he does offer a smirk, on the banner that is held aloft in “The Burial of the Sardine” (1812-19) the effect is unsettling: because it is not the artist smirking, reassuring us that we are sharing a joke. It is the picture itself, a thing, that gazes back, petrifying the voyeurism aroused by the spectacle of debauchery. Through that immobilization, opening up a space for melancholy, is the beginning of compassion. Goya, like Saul, eschews political moralizing and prescriptions. He believes in reason but he knows reason is weak when pitted against fear and the violence of demagogue-induced paranoia.  But Goya registers loss. The perhaps sleeping figure in the famous etching from the “Capricios,” possibly a self-portrait of the artist, is at the same time a credible representation of a man in grief. Goya’s integrity as an artist consisted in his willingness to own up to grief and to struggle, and to give it unsentimental representation.

Sterling Ruby, “Supermax," 2008, installation
view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Pacific
Design Center, Los Angeles

View of "Against the Grain" at LACE. From left:
Amy Sarkisian, “Godzilla;” Brian Kennon, “More
Decapitation;” John Knuth, “Building” and “Assault;”
Tom Allen, “Down There;” all works 2008.
Sterling Ruby’s show at MOCA at the PDC takes for its theme a subject that has preoccupied the artist for several years: the convergence of carceral architecture and what he calls Minimalism, which for him means the antisepticism and blankness of corporate architecture in general, in opposition to which Ruby has elaborated an aesthetic of amorphousness and defilement patterned after the territorial marking of taggers, gangs, and prisoners. To that end, he filled the MOCA space with scuffed and inscribed formica-faced architectonic forms, wax-like “stalagmites” made by repeated pourings of hotly colored polyurethane, stuffed fabric teardrops hung from the corners of the skylights (explicitly anthropomorphized into prisoners’ eyes), grungy ceramics, and a variety of collages, marbled papers,  and splashy or spray-painted abstract paintings and drawings plastered on the walls.  The title of the show, “Supermax 2008,” refers to high-tech maximum security prisons like the notorious Pelican Bay facility. But one could also suppose that “Supermax” doubles as a moniker for Ruby’s appetite for sensory overload. To hammer home the Foucault-ean underpinnings of his work, Ruby included a collage that drew an explicit comparison between the architecture of the Pacific Design Center and that of Pelican Bay.

This is all well and good, but in taking in the objects that Ruby has stuffed into the MOCA space, you quickly realize that what you’re looking at is Abstract Expres sionism repurposed as institutional critique. The drips, the organicism, the defilement of surfaces, the graffiti, the smearing, the constant invocation of the “primitive” (be it through references to cave painting or prison culture) in binary opposition to the sterile and the authoritarian--all these are tropes that go back to Ab Ex and, indeed, to an even older Romanticism. The artist’s capability as regards sources and materials is admirable. Where others similarly drawn to gestural abstraction might settle for oil paint, Ruby will do Twomblyesque drawings with nail polish. He will use unrecognizable sections of images from slasher movies to make grid collages. He notices the readymade abstractions on the plywood barriers that paintball players use for cover. But in the end, this manic collecting and the equally manic intensity of production leaves no opening for a deeper consideration of what all this activity covers up: the depression that anyone  willing to acknowledge the hollowness of modernity must risk.

Art Historian and social critic T.J. Clarke has referred to the evacuation of meaning from the modern world as “the disenchantment of the world,” and nimbly maps how modernism responded with ambivalence to this desecration, either by withdrawal into aestheticism (art for art’s sake) or by the seemingly masochistic glorification of the machine (Futurism and Constructivism).  In Clarke’s formulation, modernism is an attempted flight from the present (either into the primitive past or the utopian future) that results in an oscillation between expressionism and a disavowal of subjectivity; fascism and communism; organicism and geometry--none of which can extract their followers from the technocratic nightmare.

Ruby’s oppositional logic remains caught up in the movement of this oscillating modernism. The terms have been slightly altered: the enemy is Minimalism, the righteous primitives are criminals. But the product, shorn of its Foucault grounded pretensions, is a return to an aesthetic that predates Minimalism, namely, gestural abstraction with hints of surrealism. The need to resort to the rhetoric of transgression to facilitate the making of the work and its positive reception, and the foregrounding of sheer quantity as a defining aspect of Ruby’s practice suggest that the anxiety that underlies his work is the anxiety of coming up empty.

How might an artist confront this anxiety more directly? Perhaps, by turning to grief instead of running away from it, by acknowledging emptiness instead of trying to plug it up, by gnawing on the bitter sweetness of nostalgia without wallowing in it, by allowing loss, which is inseparable from the experience of time, to register. The group show “Against the Grain” at LACE [On view through September 21—Ed.] yields some examples of what can be accomplished along these lines. Curated by Christopher Russell, the exhibition looks back at another exhibition from LACE’s history, “Against Nature: A Group Show of Work by Homosexual Men (1988)” that was curated by Dennis Cooper and Richard Hawkins. To quote from the press release:

“Cooper and Hawkins’ original show looked at decadent seclusion and syphilitic deterioration as modes of social rebellion and was informed by J.K. Huysmans’ novel ‘À Rebours.’ This exhibition exposed the margins of the already marginalized world of gay men. The curators translated Huysmans through the lens of AIDS in a politically and socially conservative era, and displayed rich, decadent and inherently morbid work. They reacted against aesthetics that seemed polemically overwrought, privileging activism over the individual.”

Russell’s show is billed as an attempt to look beyond AIDS activism and engage the gothic and the decadent in contemporary art. Wary of the half-baked esotericism that the term “gothic” often denotes, I was a little apprehensive of what I would run into at LACE. The ploddingly mannerist paintings in this show tended to justify my wariness. Other works proved engaging. Bruce Kennon’s reproduction of an exquisite Bruce Hainley review of Richard Hawkins in Artforum was remarkable for the sheer economy with which it teased out, made use of, and multiplied the erotic implications of appropriation. Robert Fontenot’s yellow silk procession banner embroidered with the last words spoken by President Garfield’s killer could have come straight from Des Esseintes’s collection of curiosities.

However, in light of the thoughts stirred up by Sterling Ruby’s work, it was John Knuth’s “Building” that left the deepest impression. The work is a collection of shabby weathered-and-warped cardboard skyscraper scale models set down in one corner of the room. Where the walls meet behind the cluster of pigeon-shit-stained doll house sized buildings, a small pile of salt preserves the desiccated remains of several rats. Without any of the overblown rhetoric that accompanies the Ruby installation, “Building” deflates the hollow phallicism that props up the modern dream of hygiene and control and, conjuring up the ultimate flaccidity via the dead bodies of the rats, allows the melancholy beauty of the arrangement to suggest that it is not striving but letting be and letting go that yield the most meaningful gestures.