New York

David Salle

Leo Castelli Gallery

Even more completely than before, this group of paintings by David Salle is about the body, or about body parts, to be accurate, thus raising the ante of sexual fixation. Accordingly, one of the ancestors Salle latches onto here is Jean Louis Géricault, one of whose specialities was dismembered limbs, decapitated heads, and tableaux of execution. His Heads of Executed Men, ca. 1820, appears in Salle’s Loft Barn Process, 1985. But true to his bloodless pictorial lust, Salle turns severed heads into talking heads. He presents heads, usually male, cut off from bodies, and balanced by female bodies, frequently with heads cropped off or twisted out of sight.

The perversion of Enlightenment ideas into the excesses of the French Revolution is offset in Salle’s work by talking heads minus their revolution. There’s thesis and antithesis, but no synthesis. This is not just a philosophically correct resistance to closure; after all, endless flux might offer just as little resolution as Salle’s complete stasis. Like the windmills that frequently punctuate them, Salle’s paintings are powered by wind, by the hot air of talk (the round-table discussion that would be possible at the dinette set depicted in Loft Barn Process). Round and round they go; the paintings are mills that can never grind enough grist to equal the needs of the great erotic motor. So many of Salle’s heads consequently flower into outlandish hats—turbans, tricorns, Stetsons—that turn the heads into tumescent organs and exotic orchids in the corsage of his images. These hats, with their origins in highly colorful historical periods, indicate a new slant to Salle’s commentary on Romanticism. The heads, so adorned, indicate that rationality is at best quaint; at worst, it is a grinning apparition projected onto flanks of meat, onto the rear cheeks of bent-over nudes.

This commentary expands into an urgent need to denude, not just deflate. In Footmen, 1986, the patterned dress on the female figure at the top is reduced to patterned panties at bottom. For himself, Salle refuses interrogators the right to strip search. In public statements he insists on the ambiguity of art, or what is “between meaning and meaning.” Yet Salle’s work is not impelled by a need to unmask “meaning” as a story we tell ourselves.

Our anxiety when we see these mutual cancellations may be a reaction to the unrelenting spectacle of someone’s personal dilemma spread before us, to the degree to which it demonstrates a larger, shared problem. In our reactions to Salle’s paintings we sense the stubborn cleverness with which ancient taboos are retained, disguised as morally neutral intellectual constructs, while we are told of the greater power of dark forces (be they only the restless distraction of a spoiled child on a rainy day) over the illusion of any steady bright beam of the intellect. He continues to pour out his disaffected concoctions, and as his machine picks up speed, our interest wanes, and his proof strengthens. He wins—we’re as bored as he (or his persona) was or pretended to be at the beginning of all this. But there are still two questions: what is he anxious about? What are we anxious about?

Jeanne Silverthorne