Peter Saul's paintings tell stories. He incorporates depraved imagery, brute execution and jarring colors to create paintings that fall well outside the schools of both Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Robert Storr has rightly proclaimed Saul to be a painter of the "Contemporary Grotesque" (R. Storr, "The Peter Principle," Peter Saul, exh. cat., Musée de L'Abbaye Sainte-Croix, 1999, p. 17). His has been a singular voice that emphatically calls out the illogical ironies of American culture and power structures. Unlike so much social commentary that sacrificies aethetics for its message, Saul's screaming images are propelled by his artistry.
Ice Box #8 is from one of Saul's earliest and most acclaimed series- the Ice Box paintings. Painted in 1963, the present work depicts the seemingly mundane subject of a standard kitchen appliance. He transforms the quotidian into a world of rancid meat, alcoholism and secret windows. The ice box is the center of most American homes but also serves as the perfect metaphor for conspicuous consumption and bad and hidden habits. Lacking the tools of violence of some of the Ice Box paintings like guns, knives and body parts, the present work is much more nuanced. The red wine appears to chase the home owner whose head has turned into a decanter. His pleasure with this arrangement is given life in his simple exclamation of, "Hee." A yellow door opens in the ice box that seems to lead to an alternate dimension where his "little secret" can exist without social ostracism. Ice Box #8 speaks directly of hypocrisy.
Saul's maverick style has long left him outside of the art historical canon if for no other reason than that he is hard to categorize. His abrasive pictorial style of the 1960s distanced him from cool and ironic Pop Art, the natural group with whom he could have been associated given his chosen subject matter. He also actively sought to eschew the other dominant movement, Abstract Expressionism. Taking a direct shot at the primacy placed on the support and materials by Modern painters Saul said, "Main thing I think about, artistically, for the last couple of years, is getting the 'idea' or literary content or whatever you call it, out in front of, the art supplies" (P. Saul quoted in Ibid, p. 13).
Philip Guston is lauded for his audacious return to realism and abrupt rejection of abstraction. Equally, Saul was a true pioneer and champion of expressionistic realism that has influenced generations of artist like Mike Kelley, Carroll Dunham and Barry McGee. Guston simply switched his vocabulary from that of the tortured artist struggling to make pure abstract statements to a painter who painted narratives that dwelled on the tortuous life of the artist struggling with the consternation of artistic production. Guston's goals did not change; his iconography did. Saul's subversive social commentary and unwillingness to compromise his vision is an equally heroic achievement.
Ice Box #8 and Saul's other masterworks portray a bluntness and sincerity that is sorely lacking in much of the history of art. Saul's is a visceral art that brings an uncensored vision to his paintings. Saul wants us to truly experience his art. As he wrote, "I can't describe at this moment how I got this bad feeling toward modern art- has something to do with its harmlessness + use as cheerful doings for middle-aged folks. Lately I've got this idea- based on my experience, naturally- that the best moments in making art, the most exciting + alive feelings is when you go against intelligent opinion. It's a harmless way to get the thrills of eating wild mushrooms, driving 100 mph, etc. (all of which scares me shitless)" (P. Saul quoted in Ibid, p. 18).