New York

David Sandlin

Gracie Mansion Gallery

In David Sandlin’s faux fables, the Devil isn’t just riding shotgun on the Great American Joyride. He’s at the wheel, steering the dream machine through a nightmarish landscape teeming with neon-lit, canoonish tableaux illustrating the Seven Deadly Sins. But Sandlin’s sin-soaked world is a genial one. The painter moralizes like a painting prophet, but ever so good-naturedly. He may portray the Redeemer as “He-Jesus, Defender of the Faith,” but plays it for laughs; as a commentary on the debasement of faith, it’s a ridiculous truism. Overall, this exhibition of nine paintings had the chuckle-minded earnestness of Cal Smith’s hit country song about the search for true love, “Somewhere between Lust and Watching TV.”

Sandlin sets his visual sermonettes in a lower-middle-class environment with interiors containing shag rugs, fake wood paneling, and home entertainment centers; in one painting, the scene is an industrial wasteland. The male figures wear sport shirts and jeans, and have sideburns; the women pose in underwear and hair curlers. Like the America of the film Five Easy Pieces, 1970, with its trailer parks and bowling alleys, Sandlin’s painted version of this milieu is a knowing one: his rec rooms are studded with replicas of classical sculptures, housewives who pose like the Cnidian Aphrodite, and televangelists called Carl Bob Mephistopheles. These jokey reminders of watered-down “arty” values are juxtaposed with supertacky monstrosities: a sign for a Palace [of] Love features humping poodles; towering, buffoonish nude figures advertise “Sexland”; a judge with scales marked “win” and “lose” presides over a game show.

Just as Five Easy Pieces counterpointed Beethoven and Tammy Wynette to contrast enervated intellectualism with vigorous, crude pop culture, so Sandlin’s tableaux deploy the pathos of life lived like a country-music cliche, milking sincere ironies for their built-in double takes. Some paintings even have titles reminiscent of country song monikers: First House, First Spouse, 1985–86, and Oh the Nite-Lite Ain’t No Good Lite but It’s My Lite, 1986. Chalkily outlined nudes that hover overhead often haunt these sententious goings-on. In Visitation with Lust Judgement Gameshow and Resurrection, 1986, spooky figures can be seen through a rec room window rising from graves while another faintly drawn couple descends from the ceiling toward the central duo. Sandlin implies that souls are at stake (as they often are in country music). But are they being summoned? Released? Are they in need of salvation? Sandlin’s visual choruses are coy about their punch lines—he’s not saying.

When this quasi-country formula is pushed too far toward a cartoony surrealism, the tension evaporates and all that’s left is some goofy, inconsequential visual riffing. But Sandlin also heads off in the opposite direction, away from such run-on cleverness. In the harrowing vignette Narcissus of the Lagan, 1986, a possible transvestite kneels in a field near a factory, illuminated by the headlights of an out-of-the-frame car. This topless, bouffant-wigged androgyne is flanked by a baby and a rabbit. The latter are “reflected” in a foreground puddle as inflatable toy monsters, while the “woman” becomes a distorted caricature, a transformation underlined by a written-out legend: “Hi folks, I’m a symbol of male ego.” With its off, lurid colors, solitary obsessiveness, hint of ritual, and chilling mixture of innocence and perversity, Sandlin’s Narcissus conjures up the kind of grotesque dread found in Flannery O’Connor’s stories. Here, glib humor and moralizing give way to the evocative power of a dreamlike image to convey a dark truth.

John Howell