New York

John Salt

O.K. Harris

Looking at John Salt’s paintings at O.K. Harris feels a bit like being a character in Godard’s Weekend. The symptom of feeling like a character in a movie is particularly appropriate to Weekend since the characters in that movie also feel like characters in a movie. The common denominator in the two cases is the presence of persistent automobile wreckage. Probably connotations of the degenerate built-in obsolescence of the capitalist system are the meaning metaphors implicit in Salt as well as in Godard. The case was so overstated in Weekend that however nightmarish the endless flow of wreckage, it was so artificial and bizarre as to be comic, as if Godard felt a desperate fear of the possibility of some one person, in all those darkened theaters, missing the point. He was taking no chances. Salt doesn’t appear so concerned with making political points, but rather approaches a notion of “Junk can be beautiful.” For these are very quiet, almost serene paintings, especially in comparison with the usual brassiness of photo-Realism. As Godard’s wreck-ages are on the highway, and, so to speak, not yet cleaned up, Salt’s wrecks are in the junkyard, far from the scene of violence. The human wreckage that accompanies vehicular wreckage is, at most, implicit in the paintings, and in conflict with the depicted peace of the junkyard. These automobiles, objects of commerce, desire, status, admiration, and disaster, are in Salt’s paintings hardly more than physical objects in the physical world. There is something of “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” about them, as if Salt were depicting the inevitable aftermath of what Don Eddy depicts. So much for metaphors, poetry, and humanism.

Salt’s paintings share in the problem common to all photo-Realism, which is the problem of being at a standstill upon beginning. There seems to be no place for photo-Realism to go, no room for any sort of development. Thus, territories of subjects get staked out: Eddy’s new cars in showrooms and parking lots; Cottingham’s neon signs; Goings pick-up trucks and Air Stream trailers; Flack’s religious souvenirs and table top kitsch; Close’s enormous heads, etc. A few of the photo-Realists, such as Flack, Close, and especially Schonzeit, have moved away at least from the look of the snapshot and into an exploration of photographic depth-of-field as an illusionistic device. However once this exploration has gotten underway, it too seems to be at an almost immediate standstill. Morely’s solution to the problem of development amounts to undevelopment, putting photo-Realism back into gestural, conventional representational painting with a human touch. And in his step backward, Morely’s stake-out of the middle-class postcard image has remained. The problem is that differences in subjects don’t provide much in the way of contrast, and don’t amount to what could be called development. How much difference is there between a painting of a Pontiac and one of a Ford pick-up, even if one of the subjects has been wrecked? Ironically, the photo-Realists have plugged into all of photography’s conventional problems of repetition within severe restriction.

For me, the most interesting aspect of photo-Realism has always been in trying to understand what about a painting makes it look like a large photograph. Eakins’ paintings, for example, look realistic, but in no way do they look like large photographs. Identifying this characteristic of “looking like a photograph” can be pretty puzzling. What is ironic about the heading “sharp-focus” Realism is that almost none of photo-Realism is “sharp-focus.” None of Salt’s lines or edges, for instance, are clearly defined, but are slightly blurred, as if a bit off register. While this blurring is, at least in part, a product of the spray gun; it is nevertheless a contributing factor to the characteristic “looking like a photograph.” The surprise is in the expectation of the situation being the reverse. When the lines or edges in a photograph are not sharp and crisp, the photograph was poorly focused; but Salt’s paintings appear to be entirely properly focused. And this uncrisp edge is not peculiar to Salt among photo-Realists. On the other hand, the one painter usually lumped with the photo-Realists, whose paintings do not look like photographs, is Richard Estes. Estes, of course, paints with a brush and not a spray gun. The use of the brush is not as significant, in these terms, as is the fact that his lines and edges are extremely crisp, and this “sharp-focus,” in itself, prevents his paintings from having the characteristic “looking like a photograph.”

The point is not to use Salt’s exhibition as an excuse to discuss photo-Realism, but that it seems impossible to discuss Salt’s work without discussing the framework, which, in this case, is a tight one. Probably the most unusual aspect of Salt’s paintings, beyond the trademark subject, is his subdued, nonjazzy coloration. Of the seven paintings in his show, whether the depicted weather was sunny or cloudy, the colors were all a gray green tone, looking something like color printing in magazines in the late ’40s and early ’50s.

Bruce Boice