David Salle, the 65-year-old artist from Norman, Oklahoma, who has amassed many international shows around the world is back. He has made a promising return to London at the Skarstedt Gallery, with a series of work titled, ‘Musicality and Humour’. I had high expectations of his work after recently reading his book ‘How to See’ in which Salle explores the work of his peers and undresses the role of the artist and writer. Salle seeks to inform newbies like me how to paint and interestingly, how writing helps artists to understand their own work.
Entering the gallery, I saw the first crowd pleaser, ‘S.P. Divide’, (2018-19). I feel a little overwhelmed as my eyes darted from one part to another. The visual strength and energy come from the pace of imagination and the zing of the image.
Looking at the subject matter in the series of paintings I am drawn towards Salle’s use of illustrative cartoons which contrast with the colourful stripes and jumbled images. The strips and monotones cartoons create a stark contrast. I try to make sense of the visual rules, patterns and processes, which l find are reminiscent of our overloaded undiscernible culture. It takes a few minutes to steady myself and figure it all out. I then step back and walk around, finding that not only does Salle start by making that first impression appear unfathomable, but the paintings also draw the viewer in like an addictive crossword.
Related review: David Salle undressing the role of the artist and writer
I slowly, patiently, I get the answers. I am reminded of Lichenstein’s use of cartoons however, Salle’s focus is more on the brushwork than the benday dots. There is clearly a prominence given to how the paintings are made. The brisk strokes show Salle’s calculated visual fluency, as I imagine the artist listening to Jazz or classical music while he paints.
Over the top of the canvas, Salle often paints another sketch. The two layers are left as if they out of focus and unrefined. The flaws and errors are on show and are charming. They add to the appeal and highlight how Salle avoids fuzziness and getting bogged down in perfectionism.
As I walk around I realise the more I look at the subject on the surface I realise its shallowness, the more it appears to be comparable to the superficiality of advertising. It’s subject matter appears to be chosen for its aesthetical qualities, drawing you in to look for hidden meanings and narratives however, none are there. I couldn’t fail to notice the visual pun in the painting, ‘Leader of seals.’ A man resembling the seals or the seals resembling the man.
The paintings have none of the stillness and stuffiness of paintings designed on photoshop. Each canvas is carefully considered and planned to underscore and give emphasis to the subject matter’s weight, pitch and tone, without feeling plotted or forced. The paintings come from themselves through the process of painting. Each picture is inspired by the previous one bringing into question how we create logic and meaning in our visual culture.
Salle says in his book that writing completes the circle for an artist. I have found this to be true as this review has helped me to understand what I want to do with my own work. Salle emphasises the mastery of visual communication. He uses cultural signs as his playthings. Great artists of the past played with the rules and patterns of their time, Salle does the same here. The cartoons are like cut up comic books or Matisse’s cut-outs. The colours, tones and forms are put together to achieve new expressive meanings and association. These encourage us to see the world from Salle’s position where tempo and humour create personality. His work is a pictorial event. Above all, it succeeds on many levels. Salle slices through what we see, presenting enduring images that are full of energy. His painting are unpredictable and highly entertaining.
The show is on at Skarstedt Gallery, London until 26th April 2019