A veritable pantheon of deformities is assembled in a quiet white room on the top floor of a warehouse. These are Volker Saul’s disfigured figures, standing thirteen feet tall and half-mangled in a display of suggestively grotesque pageantry. To come off the deserted and shadeless industrial side streets of Chicago’s Garfield Park and into the clean, serene gallery is like discovering the tomb site or hidden temple of some Egyptian king long since resurrected or raided; all that remains are the wall paintings of once fearsome figures now just mere outlines of their former glory that once safeguarded an empire’s legacy. Surely Saul borrows iconographic elements from the ancient conventions found in Assyrian, Chinese, Mayan, and Egyptian deistic and courtly art alike. Their hulking, imperial bodies are in rigid standing poses and austerely dominate the walls. Maybe they hold them up, like pillars. Around the room they march in a frozen parade of mammoth god-like floats, perhaps in mournful procession, or at the front line of some sacrificial prayer.
Absent in these figures, however, are the conventional accoutrement and symbolic gestures that define icons, for example Ra’s eagle or the four arms of Vishnu. Saul’s characters are less identifiable, even unidentifiable, and I hesitate to even call them ‘characters’ (as does Saul), for they have neither personhood nor portrait. Rather, they are masses of body contours, like giant melted dolls, all fleshy thighs and bulging ball joints. Some parts of their ‘bodies’ appear to have metastasized or begin to molt out of their own tissue accumulations, either cancers or products of an atomic blast. Yet they retain their stance, erect, possibly staring at us through drooping misplaced eyes. Out of what horrible history did these idols emerge? I see DDT babies and half-digested, aborted mutants, bilious cankers and a pile of guts. Such is the nature of the gods who preside over us, formed in our image.
Perhaps I am giving too much away, for these gross associations are inferred from very minimal line drawings, and are merely suggestive. In fact, the works are also crisp and tight pieces of fine art, meaning they look great in a white gallery. Saul’s process is rather straightforward. He begins on a small scale with a sheet of paper and a tube of paint, which he literally uses to draw the image. Pressure is applied as the tube glides along the paper, the line only as thick as the tube’s mouth, and circles appear where Saul lifts off from the paper. These drawings are preparatory studies for the large-scale cartoons that are then transferred onto the walls.
Although the forms and volumes are well-defined, viewers can project their own adventure, as it were, by filling in the blanks. I tend to err to seeing raw flesh textures but really anything could do, from shiny mirrored surfaces to machine cogs with metal bones. Saul enjoys the range of possibilities that viewers would bring to his “cartoons,” as he calls them. Saul’s past wall paintings are more related to cartoons in the comic book sense with broad flat colors and visual onomatopoeic explosions. But the current shapes – the runny, dissolving marching monsters – which he has been making for about four years now, resemble cartoons such as they relate to Old Master paintings, in that they would be sketches; in essence, they’re unfinished, to be filled in by the viewer’s dirty mind.
Volker Saul’s new wall paintings exemplify a contemporary art tendency that relies on viewers to participate in the creation of the work, either with their imagination or else through a physical act, and thus conceptual ambiguity, formal abstraction and free association are the order of the day. This is a safe way to avoid creating dogmatic art, like advertising, and although Saul’s art is monolithic, it is passively so. The figures are the color of the wall, blank like projection screens, empty in between the lines, and one can say they resemble ‘this’ or have the same qualities as ‘that’ forever. It appears that we’ve been surrounded by a mobile army of metaphors, as Nietzsche would call it. It’s a transparent edifice that we take everywhere with us, transposing it upon the landscape, coloring it in how we see fit, but mostly with a desire to see.
Published in Newcity (July 17, 2007)