Wrongness (Peter Saul)

The new issue of Turps Banana is out (always exciting). It opens with a conversation between Mark Greenwold and Peter Saul. Greenwold’s work is new to me and I don’t yet have eyes for it, but Saul’s I’ve known for years. His paintings are among those I associate with interesting “wrongness”  (maybe everyone their own list, mine includes: vache period Magritte; late Picabia; The Hairy Who painters; the Bad Painting exhibition; Jim Shaw’s collection of Thrift Store Paintings; some Kippenberger and Oehlen; Manuel Ocampo; some Mike Kelley; Robert Crumb when he apes “modern art”; Carroll Dunnham). I’ve previously written about this wrongness here. It is something to do with transgressing “good” taste, whatever that might be (sometimes a straw man, sometimes an almost insurmountable consensus). What I call “wrongness” definitely does not require knowingness. Outsider art (like Henry Darger’s) proves that one does not always need to know the rules before breaking them. But in Saul’s case, it’s interesting that he certainly does know the ways in which his paintings are transgressive.


Peter Saul Didn’t Hurt (1998) acrylic and oil on canvas 118 x 90cm

Here are some Saul quotes from the Turps Banana article. I find these interesting in relation to the “wrongness” that I see and appreciate in Saul’s work. Emphasise my own:

“… At that moment [1958], it seemed all known, professional artists wanted to be involved in the plastic elements of art – line, colour, space, form, etc; what I thought of as ‘technique’ – and tried hard to avoid that ‘other’ thing we call content, story, psychology, history, etc. So here was a chance to distinguish myself by doing something wrong, …”

“… Suburban Home is a swell subject, an opportunity to make a lot of architectural mistakes, and have the wrong attitude in general; …”

Wrongness is in the eye of the beholder. I often get a “wrongness” reaction to my own work (bad colour, bad composition, poor choice of subject matter, banality). That never feels good, at least initially. Occasionally I embrace it. More often I partially repress it in process – which can be counter-productive as it usually results in work that’s neither enjoyably “right”, nor interestingly “wrong” (all totally subjective, of course). So far, I’ve largely dodged the issue by approaching my paintings as “exercises”, “experiments”, and “doodles”, but I don’t wish to take that noncommittal position indefinitely (or maybe I should, who knows!).

In regard to picture content, these words from Saul encourage me to consider a lighter and less guarded approach.

“… my imagination doesn’t worry me any. … I turn my imagination loose. I can think any thought. It’s OK! If my picture needs something really, really horrible, I can think it up right away with real enthusiasm and not worry that it’s something I might not want to do. … Anything can be pictured; doesn’t mean it should, could, or would happen. It’s only a picture. … I like to laugh and curse while I work, and modern art is a field of enjoyment for me.”


8 thoughts on “Wrongness (Peter Saul)

  1. So far, I’ve largely dodged the issue by approaching my paintings as “exercises”, “experiments”, and “doodles”, but I don’t wish to take that noncommittal position indefinitely (or maybe I will, who knows!).

    Liam, you are using trainer wheels in your own estimation. At the same time I reckon more stuff is happening in your doodles than you are conceding. You know very well what is wrong with your paintings. I don’t. But to steal a thought from Gertrude Stein, you don’t know what’s right with them.

    Jump in the deep end, mate – Saul puts it much much better of course, and in lingo I am sure you will natively respond to.


    • I agree that the “doodles” and “exercises” are fermenting stuff. For me there’s a big difference between thinking about painting and actually doing it. When I’m doing it, I’m just muddling along the best I can.


      • Liam, I don’t have the book to hand – I’ve just packed up my life and am a strolling minstrel for a month or two while I figure the fuck out. Which is good.

        I’ve had the better Stein books (some are appalling) around me all the time and in some of them there are fully fleshed out diary records of long discussions with Picasso, Matisse and many others when they were all boys, and she was moving heaven and earth for them and other young struggling artists in Paris and feeding them and encouraging them yadda yadda. She wrote on just on Picasso. It misses the mark in plenty of ways, but as a primary source, it’s for devouring.

        Her take on art is eccentric. She was, in her serious writing, quite tortuous. Erudite, uber learned, but tedious for me. She was on about a new kind of writing. She was a modernist and uncompromising. But in her “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” she comes alive and has written a book that is both charming and enlightening. It’s a conceit, of course, the title. It’s her autobiography and poor Alice is a bit player. She was a magnet in Paris, for over half a century, when Paris was a magnet for anyone with ideas and yearnings and she had a salon. I’m easy to please – her views on art and people and events and history accord much with mine, has probably influenced my thinking. I’m a blotting paper – rarely a fresh idea here.

        The book is full of bon mots. There are even books of her quotes I think. So, not exactly remembering, I just tried to search for this one. Nothing. But I remember underlining it in (which?) book. However, for once my grey cells recall sufficient to give it some semblance. Here goes “All young artists know what’s wrong with their painting. What they don’t know, is what’s right with it”. She was strongly of the view that patrons ought to encourage and not act as critics. The same goes for blogposters too, methinks. Hahahaha.

        Liam, your erudition and earnestness are mixed with freshness and humility. So, having none of those qualities myself, I have some trepidation in jumping in so blithely and assertively. Except I won’t shut up. I actually like very very much your daubdaubs, and, above all, your willingness to exhibit vulnerability. In art, I find that intoxicating.


      • If you figure the fuck out, please tell me what that’s like. 🙂 I have never read a word of Stein, and am now curious to do so. And thank you for your kind words. They are something to live up to, and in that way extremely helpful. 😀


  2. Pingback: Nice quote from Chris Martin | dailydaub

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