Tuesday, 22 July 2008



The paintings of David Salle were first recognised as part of the Neo-Expressionist movement of the early 80s. While the artist soon tightened his rendering, restricted gesture and materials, his distinctive compositions of multiple pictures, or layouts, in many ways continue to anchor the work in older concerns, increasingly signal the end of a period rather than a beginning. This post looks at how his style arose, where it led.

From the artist’s account, his earliest works, of the mid 70s, were small silhouettes. This echoes concerns in New Image Painting (see also Post 56) where strict outlines tend to signal a symbolic or metaphoric meaning, acquire a print-like currency. Salle then refined these with tone and modelling and conspicuously sets them well within or around large sheets of paper, drawing attention to placement, the picture’s ‘framing’ distinct from the support. Subsequent paintings invert, superimpose and contrast styles and subjects between pictures, reinforce this disjuncture and unitary arrangement. Where New Image Painting arrives at template-like icons that urge symbolic meaning, Salle abstracts pictures another way, stresses their literal removal or transference, equally prompts non-literal or metaphoric meaning.

Metaphor occurs through contrasts and affinities with other pictures to a layout, occasionally text and then qualities of supporting material. They struggle for a common theme or clear context though, variously obscure or embellish one another, and for a while Salle is happy to extend this relation to collaged supports, accompanying fixtures, including furniture. All variously reflect and contrast with pictures, frame, inflect and participate in style and subjects. In as much as pictures achieve metaphors here, it is firstly for their versatility and uncertainty; their convenient framing yet inconvenient exclusions. The paintings want context for contained pictures, but mostly from other pictures, so that they never quite get enough to give much, endlessly defer to each other and surroundings.

Related to this is the abiding theme of the female nude or seductively presented woman, her face or gaze mostly averted or omitted, the pose submissive yet calculated, formal but carnal. Sexuality here also suffers from a delayed or deferred context; means too many things in too many ways to properly or fully engage; is at once explicit yet fraught with myriad implications. The work reveals and revels in an urgent but shallow focus. Salle clutters or co-ordinates, lest he impose or subordinate.

The theme is developed initially from soft porn and other print sources, to staging his own very theatrical, somewhat fetishist photography, as sources for paintings, in strictly juxtaposed or partitioned layouts, to augmentation with single objects, at times abstract design or irregular framing. All increase the variety of pictures and painterly treatments; encompass stylistic parody and pastiche, more intricate layouts. Yet the work does not necessarily achieve greater distinction. Indeed, the smoother and more diverse Salle’s layouts, the more they remind us of others, especially the work of Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist, of how closely the work remains tethered to print sources, for the affinity. Salle’s simple line and tone sketches quickly suffer for the sophistication. Later, more fluent eclecticists such as John Currin or Glenn Brown only underline how crude Salle’s mastery remains, how clumsy his intuitions.

Similarly, Salle’s use of superimpositions and printed fabric supports is overshadowed by the precedent of Sigmar Polke, by a longer, more comprehensive project. Salle was not so much influenced by Polke as arrives a little later at a similar remove from print sources, a similar taste in the outré. In other respects, the kind of multiple and diffuse metaphors that Salle’s layouts summon soon demand a more sustained or continuous picture, or stricter structure; otherwise expire in tedium or chaos. Salle is occasionally drawn to symmetry, to greater pattern in layout, but shuns more schematic arrangements, explored by say, a Pittman, a Taaffe or a de Balincourt. Again this tethers the work to an earlier period; escapes the stark metaphors of European Neo-Expressionism (see also Posts 26, 40 and 44) and New Image Painting, but stops short of following interests in stylisation and diagram.

Finally, where Salle does engage with greater integration in recent works, drawing introduces unusual distortion or exaggeration to figures, elsewhere resorts to a software ‘swirl filter’ for greater abstraction. All are applied to the female figure. The old problem - perhaps the only problem - persists, of separating style from subject or substance, of giving subject more than one style, of allowing style more than one subject. In this, Salle is still caught regarding formalities as something more, remaining at arm’s length from more intimate association.

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