David Salle is a fool for choice. He lets possibilities open up in his paintings, then leaves them well alone – an approach that’s evident throughout his new show, ‘Musicality and Humour’, at Skarstedt’s London gallery. Cartoon figures recur; shapes and patterns do too; and, as these elements nod to each other, from one wall to the next, they leave their importance for you to judge.
The eleven paintings here (all 2018–19), accomplished works in oil and acrylic, are eleven versions of one amorphous dream. The figures within them are mid-century cartoon types, who seem to have stepped from a New Yorker strip: their scenarios are sly and teasing, but never obtuse. There are bars and rooms and hospital beds. The men wear trilbies and sport bow-ties, while the women are all cinched waists, high bosoms and pearls. Around them are shoes and hearts and leaves, common things in solid colours, flitting genially about.
Some of the titles suggest a visual priority. There’s Leader of Seals, for instance, with its bathetically seal-faced man, or S.P. Divide, a two-panelled picture bisected by a vaguely phallic block of stripes. Others point to Salle’s love of composition: Latin Rhythms and Autumn Rhythm are busier works, where the intersecting planes of action are at their most subtly overlapped.
Salle’s work is lightly surreal, though not with a capital ‘S’. He steers clear of the endpoint that Sanford Schwartz saw in the work of Salle’s 1970s peers; there’s no sense here that, as Schwartz put it, ‘psychoanalysis [is] around the corner’. One reason for this is Salle’s satisfaction with cheap little jokes. The all-American nurse and exuberant aproned girl – who figure in most of these works – are flustered by a man riding an ass in Latin Rhythms and, in Autumn Rhythm, by a bunch of thick-cut meat. The phrase ‘whistle while you work’ is continually being drowned out. In Grey Honeymoon, the aproned girl is falling while a new bride is being carried across her threshold.
This lovesick lady; that joint of ham: Salle’s layering gives options to the eye. The pictorial plane is physically single but illusionistically multiple; that singleness is Salle’s anchor. It prevents any one element from acting too brashly and, in doing so, it keeps these paintings light of heart. They’re never so serious as to plant their feet in one or another place.
In a sense, then, ‘Musicality and Humour’ is about the word ‘meanwhile’, and its way of reaching sideways to form new bonds. Salle calls this ‘making simultaneity happen on canvas’. The elements in his work are far from independent; not only do their recurrences see to that, but their colours do as well. Mixtures are rare: the green leaf in Equivalence is one, laced carefully with blue. More often, shades make small talk amongst themselves, like friends riffing on each other’s words. The deep red of a shoe picks up that of a heart, and that of some meat, and onward from work to work.
The more sophisticated part of control lies in making itself invisible, and it takes a little time to see how Salle keeps each frame just shy of overload. The painter’s care is what primes these fields, ready for new connections to spark. Schwartz wrote that Salle ‘doesn’t make any order out of [his] offerings’. Order precludes spontaneity – and where’s the joy in that?
David Salle, 'Musicality and Humour' runs at Skarstedt, London, until 26 April 2019.
Main image: David Salle, The Rain Fell Everywhere (detail), 2018, oil and acrylic on linen, 1.8 × 2.6 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Skarstedt, London/New York and DACS, London, 2019
First published in Issue 203