David Salle: Yellow Fellow, 2015, oil, acrylic, silkscreen and pigment print on linen, 78 by 108 inches, from the series “Late Product Paintings,” 2014-15; at Skarstedt.

When David Salle indulges his refined taste in the “Silver Paintings” (2014-15), the results are hauntingly gorgeous. But in the concurrent “Late Product Paintings, he rolls up his sleeves and throws the world onto his canvases, risking a chaotic mess but achieving a poignant grace. 

These two series of large works at Skarstedt, one archly Warholian, the other a nod to early Rosenquist, hit complementary notes. The gallery thrummed with Salle’s usual formal rigor, wild stylistic juxtapositions and grisailles with a disturbing creepiness several shades darker than any of the 50. 

The monochrome “Silver Paintings”—imprecise photo transfers of a blanket-shrouded figure—owe their sheen not to metallic paint but to a contrasting scale of painterly grays. They provide quiet foils to the vivacious “Late Product Paintings.” Filled with deep oranges, lemons, emeralds and ultramarines, the latter smash together ’60s advertisements, Picassoid heads and hands, photos Salle had staged for earlier paintings, awkwardly crayoned musicians and troweled passages of thick impasto (sometimes just digital copies) to produce a light both radiant and sharp.

The two bodies of work reflect a sinuous intertwining of intellect and feeling. Relationships that seem discursive nevertheless demand visceral responses. Take, for instance, the image of a tube applying a stream of paste to a toothbrush, which appears in both Self-Expression and Home Guard. The conflation of toothpaste, brush and tube with their corollary painting implements can seem like a witty pun, but the disturbing associations between personal hygiene and the fecal metaphors implicit in the act of painting also induce a strong sense of feeling. Additionally, the toothpaste’s serpentine form turns up in other paintings, gathering poetic force through repetition, like Pynchon’s association, in Gravity’s Rainbow, of a rocket’s parabolic path with the curve of a thorn.  

It is notable that some images have their origins in
Salle’s “Early Product Paintings” from 1993. And others, which are featured in the “Silver Paintings,” come from photos Salle took in ’93 of a young blanketed Massimo Audiello, performer and gallerist, ambiguously posing semi-naked in front of those “Early Product Paintings.” Here, Salle’s imagery represents not just the world but the decisions and intentions of his younger self, and his arrangement of the images becomes a reckoning with his youth. 

So despite the exhortation to “UNPACK” in emphatic lettering at the bottom of Carny Mind (2015), understanding the reasoning, sources and signifiers of all the images in even a single painting is a fool’s errand. Salle’s imagery, just so many juggled forms in his play of paint, should be felt rather than analyzed. His nature as a painter is revealed not in the hermeneutics of his images, but in the intuitive ways he brings them together.

The “Late Product Paintings,” which are combinations of previously painted or printed canvas and direct brushwork, are almost seamlessly crafted. From a distance, the surfaces appear as continuous series of gestures. But close up, the imperfect attempts to match edges of cut canvas or to disguise seams with fresh applications of paint are curiously revealing. The subtle ruptures guide attention away from the works’ meanings as images to their complex orchestration. Salle allows a glimpse into the effort required to resolve paintings whose look of energetic spontaneity results from both experimentation and a developed instinctual sense of traditional formal coherence. 

Among the admirable qualities of both people and art, Salle has recently noted, is “the ability to bring others into the emotional, substantive self.” Salle’s new paintings bear empathic fruit by revealing the sincere artificiality of his earnest effort to seem effortless.