Standing on a Beach

David Salle: New Paintings
Mary Boone Gallery, NYC

It was not that long ago that David Salle seemed to strike a collective nerve with his simulations of paintings: for some, he resurrected Painting; for others he fucked its necrotic corpse. Among critics he was praised for revivifying the art form, along with his colleagues Julian Schnabel and Eric Fischl, and vilified by feminist critics for his reified soft-core porn subject matter. Artist and writers such as Peter Halley and Mira Schor drew up highly articulate sides in the battlefields that Salle called paintings.

At Mary Boone Gallery, Salle emerges from over a decade of forays into film, set decors, and Rosenquist-like billboards with a new series that grafts together elements of his earlier works with panels depicting an empty seascape set with Adirondack beach chairs.

In works such as Time is a Frame (2010) and The Mennonite Button Problem (2010), Salle employs the trope of amateur porn photography and combines the blurry images of lingerie-clad women in uncomfortably torqued positions with blankly limned pictures of meat and boats. Twenty years ago such post-modern painterly shenanigans seemed wildly misogynistic (meat=women=object) to some; to others it represented the end-game of visual depiction—one of these things is not like the others (to paraphrase Sesame Street.) Perhaps the idea of redoing his own works is part of a strategic effort on Salle’s part. How better to show how bankrupt our collective image bank is than by cribbing from his own work? What strikes a note of pathos, though undoubtedly unintentional, is just how far our porn has come in the internet age. One imagines trying to explain to young viewers what is going on here, and having to answer their imploring queries: “Why isn’t the naked lady moving?” or, “Why isn’t she sucking six cocks?” The media that Salle once seemed to navigate with such knowing skill has far outstripped him. He is hoist on the petard of his own irony.

In the painting Camus (2010), Salle employs two motifs he used to great effect in the past: The name of the author of The Stranger is deployed over an image of a reclining woman, a riffing on his painting Tennyson from the '80s. Salle also incorporates a red velvet rope, dipping in front of the picture plane, as if to keep us, the riff-raff, at bay. A real light bulb protrudes in front of a panel of photographic tree branches, glimmering like a dying sun peeking through a wintery forest. Haunting. Yet, somehow, in spite of himself Salle seems to have hit on a kernel of art in this work. Like his add-on panels of the empty seascape, which remind us of Mersault killing the Arab on the sickeningly hot beach, we feel a gnawing emptiness in front of these works. Not empty in the sense that Salle might wish us to feel; that is, hollow from the dizzying array of things and images we are assailed with every day. Rather, we feel a void not filled by the empty calories that these anemic gestures contrived as art give us.

Our empathy is piqued by knowing, irony of ironies, that Salle meant these works to be seen as real art all along. Like Mersault, he is ultimately unrepentant for perpetrating these objects upon us, and, in the end, we must be grudgingly appreciative of the patience that it took him to drive home his point. Looking past the wooden chairs out into the empty sea, we feel his absolution. “As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” - Bradley Rubenstein

Mary Boone Gallery is at 541 West 24 St. in New York City; the Salle exhibit runs through June 25, 2011.

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.