New York

David Salle

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

Wherever you look there seems to be a loss of critical energy, a blind contentment with the status quo. The situation is bad, but the only response seems to be an irresponsible retreat into a self-delusionary nostalgia. The malaise is widespread. I could be talking about politics: I’m talking about art.

So what is a young artist committed to the idea of making significant art supposed to do? How can art destabilize conventional thought when the critical procedures validated by modernism—the distancing techniques of abstraction, manipulation of scale, and irony—seem worn out? One possibility is to follow a strategy of infiltration, to use established conventions against themselves, gaining access to a position of trust only to confound it.

David Salle has been working in this way for some time now. He makes tremendously stylish paintings, paintings which are sophisticated enough to look good in the most elegant of rooms. His choice and juxtaposition of color is brilliant—pale, stained fields, highlighted with bright, contrasting lines that have the look of high fashion. Yet his chosen imagery is emotionally and intellectually disturbing. Most often his subjects are objectified women. At best these representations of women are cursory and off-hand; at worst they are brutal and disfigured. His women are made ridiculous or ugly through juxtapositions with containerlike objects, such as furniture. These juxtapositions disturb on a deeper level than one might at first imagine.

Salle’s work is seductive, but obscure, and it is its obscurity that is its source of strength. We are primed to understand his work metaphorically, but the metaphors refuse to gel the way we expect them to. Meaning is intimated, but finally withheld. It appears to be on the surface, but as soon as it is approached it disappears, provoking the viewer into a deeper examination of prejudices bound inextricably within the conventional representations which express them.

This is true of Salle’s best work. His latest paintings proved to be a bit of a disappointment, because of a (temporary?) victory of style over content. The paintings looked more impressive than ever, but the clash of imagery was much cruder and more simple-minded. Gone was the disorienting unfolding of contradictory layers of meaning. The central metaphor revolved around the matching of naked women with tubular furniture, and it just kept revolving, going nowhere. The work is as visually aggressive as ever, but one hopes Salle has not forgotten why that aggressiveness is important.

Thomas Lawson