Hong Kong

David Salle, Playing, Dreaming, 2015, oil, acrylic, crayon, and ink-jet print on linen, 78 × 101 3/4".

David Salle, Playing, Dreaming, 2015, oil, acrylic, crayon, and ink-jet print on linen, 78 × 101 3/4".

David Salle

David Salle, Playing, Dreaming, 2015, oil, acrylic, crayon, and ink-jet print on linen, 78 × 101 3/4".

Anyone who has ever been to a bustling Asian metropolis will be familiar with the barrage of visual information coming from all directions. So it’s no surprise, really, how David Salle’s distinctive and often discordant work perfectly situates itself in such a context. His first solo exhibition in Hong Kong’s compressed and restless urban landscape consisted of five recent medium-scale paintings, dating from 2014 to the present, along with ten small paintings made this year. The carefully balanced exhibition didn’t feel cramped. The same might be said for the works themselves, in which a thoughtful compression builds on a profusion of layered imagery oscillating between balance and counterbalance—a lyrical counterpoint operating equally and, in the best cases, simultaneously.

Playing, Dreaming, 2015, the largest and most complex painting in the exhibition, incorporates Salle’s full arsenal of media: oil, acrylic, crayon, and collage. Compositionally divided into quarters, this painting, like many of the others, includes digitally transferred swatches of brushstrokes, stains, and smears, photographically enlarged and applied seamlessly to the surface. Playing, Dreaming is filled with circular imagery: A garbage-disposal sink drain juts to the foreground, leading the eye down its dark hole; a large, luscious bowl of split-pea soup drifts diagonally opposite. The earliest painting in this show, Shelter, 2014, might have been the most politically overt. The painting, a vertical diptych, also contains digital collage elements. In the upper half, layered over an abstract field of multicolored stains, hangs a handpainted 1950s-style price tag reading PAY ONLY $39.95 along with the additional sales jargon WITH NO REDUCTION IN QUALITY. The painting’s lower portion, like a graphic cartoon illustration from a magazine of the same era, is more ominous, depicting the interior of a bomb shelter, like one of those that cropped up across America during the Cold War. The words CUTAWAY PLAN OF COMMUNITY SHELTER UNDER BRIDGE appear on the side. Here, the seductive language of advertising seems to thumb its nose at nuclear annihilation.

The small, new paintings, made with matte Flashe paint on vintage magazine ads from the ’50s and ’60s, each presented as an individual page mounted to linen, are single statements or casual fragments—Americana haiku rather than sweeping narratives. They feel private and tentative. Visual quotations in Salle’s work are nothing new. His ongoing conversations with art history, design, theater, music, and literature emerge clearly in these pieces; they sometimes give a considered nod to early James Rosenquist or include clever references to Norman Rockwell’s America. In one of the small works, for example, Untitled 11, 2016, three suburban guys are drinking beer with the slogan SCHLITZ: THE BEER THAT MADE MILWAUKEE FAMOUS partially visible. All three have been nearly obliterated by seemingly haphazard smears and blotches of pink, yellow, white, and green pigment—a perfectly good post-game summer day gone bad. On closer inspection, these random, abject gestures begin to align with the image and its suggestion of an easier time, yet remain redolent of the disquieting historical moment the world is living through now.

Salle’s long and persuasive engagement with a discursive visual narrative and associative subtext has remained key since the beginning. Vacillating between the figurative and the abstract, his work is grounded by ideation and the sheer power of looking. Images become characters in a larger play that triggers our associative powers. Drama, conflict, simultaneity, and scrutiny advance a subjective decoding of images and meaning. The very parts of the world, as Wallace Stevens reminds us, are what allow it to be measured by eye.

Arthur Solway