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.