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.
Back in the 1980s, the paintings of David Salle were the essence of hip postmodernism, flagrantly offending any lingering proponents of a modernist era who would have insisted that the creation of an image should be synonymous with the authentic experience of that image. Salle’s paintings were knowingly superficial and coyly prurient. The random air cultivated by his superimposition of half-painted samples indicated that he didn’t care about his subject matter any more than he was suggesting that we did. His drawing was affectedly slipshod, as though he was casting himself as the unreliable narrator of a mass-media narrative which had to be unassimilable by the reliable measures of old-world empirical representation.
If Salle’s recent paintings attempt to emulate the qualities of the 1980s work for which he is celebrated, they fail. And they may be an attempt to re-create his earlier idiom, given that the layering of images-with “hot” soft-pornographic imagery foiled by “cool” still-life and landscape backgrounds-is carried over. But the effect of these smaller paintings is surprisingly other. They are idiosyncratically painterly where the early work was graphic; and where the constituent elements used to gel into arrangements as functionally pitched as a billboard advertisement, now the coherence of the conflations tends to break down; the illusions falter and the paint flounders into gestural illegibility.
Salle was originally more a collagist and sampler than a painterly surrealist. Rather than reinventing his sources in paint, he orchestrated them into mysterious configurations. Here, however, the jarring juxtapositions register less as independently sourced elements hovering within postmodern image space, and more as surreal pictorial illogic. A headless torso in a polka-dot scarf (Salle’s familiar beheading of his figures is another ongoing device) shares a rowboat with a chorus dancer’s high-kicking leg (Green Raft, 2011). The boat’s receding diagonals are a bit of cartoonish perspectival opportunism, creating a facile illusionistic space that the fragments awkwardly occupy. These various discrete elements are more stylistically homogenous than they would have previously been. Salle risks allowing them to congregate within a single space in a ludicrous burlesque. Comedy of any form was, of course, absent from the po-faced early work. Now, there is implicit amusement at the concoctions the superimpositions haplessly generate.
The issue here is control, and how painting is galvanized into vitality by the gap an artist may cultivate between his own intentions and the unpredictable recalcitrance of the medium. In this sense, painting is as much, if not more, about knowing how to exploit what could not have been foreseen as it is about the ability to produce an intended effect. Pink and Blue Chairs (2012) activates color as its imagistic legibility unravels. A half-naked woman is sketched over two deck chairs, both unoccupied. The shocking pink of one of the chairs replaces the ocher of the superimposed hips and belly to represent flesh. It is a startling fusion that appears as if it could not have been premeditated. And yet, this inventiveness is not sustained. Lookout (2010-the largest painting in the exhibition at 75 by 54 inches) has self-consciously accidental-seeming smudges and drips disrupting the graphic formula of its landscape backdrop. It looks as though Salle has regained his mastery and the magic has deserted him. Once again, he is creating an effect rather than inventing a perception.
Photo: David Salle: Pink and Blue Chairs, 2012, charcoal, acrylic and oil on linen, 20 by 30 inches; at Gerhardsen Gerner.