New York

David Salle

Gagosian Gallery

The queasiness that David Salle’s most successful paintings supposedly induce has often been cited as proof of their seriousness, even of a kind of backdoor sincerity. Thomas Lawson had some encouraging things to say about Salle’s obscene or wanna-be obscene pile-ups of incommensurable images in “Last Exit: Painting,” “Meaning is intimated but tantalizingly 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 with the conventional representations that express them.” Salle, in fact, approaches a kind of muteness more readily associated with formalist abstraction than with his own image blitzes, but he achieves this via opposite means. Rather than by severe painterly reduction, he enforces silence through imagistic proliferation and hypertrophy. He plays a familiar post-Modern game: errant signifiers somnambulistically jump through flaming hoops without the nuisance of attendant ball-and-chain signifieds. But it is questionable whether such tactics can really provoke the viewer to anything more than glassy-eyed, seen-it-all-before boredom.

Salle’s new paintings aren’t really all that ugly; they are even rather ingratiating. Against backgrounds of pastiched old masters (in which all of the figures seem to be leering) float typical Salle motifs: naked women, women dressed up as harlequins, African tchatchkes, abstract smears of paint, etc. He has introduced a few new elements to his act such as cartoon bubbles that hover aimlessly in most of the paintings, demonstrating that Salle remains plugged into some sort of art-world zeitgeist (cf. Mike Kelley, Richard Prince, and Meyer Vaisman). These bubbles, however, are empty; but then again, Salle has always trafficked in the inexpressible.

Here Salle seems to have tempered the misogyny of which he has so often been accused. (A woman artist I know likened a visit to a David Salle exhibition to a gang-bang.) His trademark girlie pinup images have been softened. Instead of the flagrant beaver shots that we have come to expect, most of these women are clothed, albeit ridiculously; the result is a sort of exploitation lite.

Salle’s women remain the privileged objects of artistic disfigurement. No, he never actually crumbles their pretty faces á la Picasso (although in one picture he paints out only the head of the model). Instead, he makes fools of them, putting them through their paces as circus entertainers assembled for his amusement. The catalogue for this show includes three drivelly poems by George W. S. Trow, “Written on the Occasion of an exhibition of new paintings by David Salle.” The second poem concludes: “AND THE WHOLE IS MADE VIRILE/AGAIN—AND AGAIN/AND THE WHOLE IS MADE VIRILE AGAIN.” Maybe that’s what Salle’s work has always been about: overcoming a desperate sense of masculine inadequacy by showing women—uh, excuse me, girls—as helpless and hopeless.

David Rimanelli