New York

David Salle

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

The press release for David Salle’s recent exhibition of his new “Vortex Paintings” is conspicuous in its magniloquence, claiming that the spiral at the center of these ten large oil-on-linen works creates an “unprecedented sense of spatial depth.” It’s temping to attribute this hyperbole to Mary Boone and Jeffrey Deitch, the show’s copresenters, but the work’s overtly formal emphasis ultimately refers us back to the artist himself as its source. The cyclones depicted, the text continues, either “retreat into deep space” or “project off the surface,” and Salle is indeed at pains here to conjure perspectival back-and-forth.

The vortices, faces or figures digitally stirred into various degrees of illegibility, are surrounded by and overlaid with spatial cues. Here a foreshortened Cessna plane, angled as if sucked into the eddy by centripetal force; there a skinny fir tree, cutting a diagonal from the lower right-hand corner of the canvas to the eye of the storm. The smooth handling of the twisters foils relatively subdued backdrops of comic-book characters and occasional passages of abstract pattern—the funny face in Funny Face, 2004, is superimposed on Richteresque horizontal swaths, while other paintings feature snippets of a soft-porn parody of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—and many possess spatially allusive titles (Float, 2005, Isthmus, 2005, The Inside, 2005).

The problem with the “Vortex” paintings is that they read as resolutely flat (tornadoes, of the sort in Salle’s native Kansas that are said to have inspired them, usually happen in level places). Another, bigger problem is that the conflict between depth and depthlessness that the works stage is their most diverting aspect, and this, despite the dirty comics, high-key colors, skillful facture, and anamorphic distortions, makes them feel oddly static; by engaging one of modernism’s most durable sawhorses, Salle reveals the inherent conservatism of his postmodernist pose. Though grotesquely dilated, the faces, resurrected from Salle’s back catalogue (the appropriationist appropriating himself!) or drawn from pop culture sources such as manga, are all vaguely familiar. Even the sexual hijinks of the bare-bottomed dwarves, all of whom resemble a hybrid of (not surprisingly) Happy and (inexplicably) Sneezy, here seemed mild compared to Mike Kelley’s hilarious perversions a few doors down at Gagosian.

If the paintings that spawned Sallemania two decades ago conjured up cinematic montage and theatrical staging, the “Vortex” series conjures up . . . Photoshop. Maybe the artist got tired of being the whipping boy for all that went wrong with painting in the ’80s, and saw the digital processes he began employing in 2002 as a way out. But the move seems an unnecessary capitulation, for Salle’s mismatched juxtapositions looked like digitally collaged images all along, even before computerized cutting and pasting became so easy. Snow White, 2004, was among the better paintings on view—the prurient antics of our heroine’s diminutive friends frame her funhouse face, which remains magically discernible from what at first appears to be a whirling abstraction. But the triptych Vortex Painting, 2004, is the fairest of them all: The flora-and-fauna fabric strip on the left and the contrapposto female form on the right recall the capricious stylistic combinations and masterly, if coldly blasé, technical gifts on which Salle first hung his hat. The gray-scale tempest constituting its central panel was likely the genesis of the series. One wishes he’d left it at that.

Lisa Pasquariello