New American Paintings/Blog

Invisible Performers: David Salle at The Arts Club of Chicago by New American Paintings
May 22, 2013, 8:30 am
Filed under: Chicago, Review | Tags: , ,

How can a figure pretend to be invisible, yet still remain the focus of the painting?  David Salle begs the question with his recent exhibition at The Arts Club of Chicago – a stunning collection entitled the Ghost Paintings, which displays a collection of work produced by Salle in the early 1990s.  The level of artifice referenced by the title, which though acknowledged in perhaps a witty sense, is never coy or masked – make no mistake, the mask may very well be the subject – but Salle’s relationship to form in these paintings is much more Classical than that.  Like folds carved out of alabaster marble, the forms the figures take in the paintings are heightened by their sculptural presence.  Each canvas in the exhibition carries on it a similar photographic image exposed directly onto photosensitized linen, depictions of longtime model Beverly Eaby, who was asked to pose in Salle’s studio covered in a simple white sheet.  Like cinematic portraits of an unseen performer, where dreams of phantasmagoria meet the hard-edged formalist, Salle’s theatrical, yet frivolous and unrehearsed canvases assail the reciprocity between the image, and how it is constructed. – Stephanie Cristello, Chicago Contributor

'92 Ghost 3
David Salle | Ghost 3, 1992, ink on photosensitized linen, 85 x 75 inches,  © David Salle, VAGA, NY. Photographer: John Berens.

The paintings are poetic because of their persistent formalism – not despite it.  The desire to capture a form is so simple in the attempt, yet intensely and irreconcilably complicated in the execution of the painting.  Much more crude and visceral in person, the surface exposes the brilliant bands of color as saturated pools of ink and wiped away planes, beautiful in their uneven distribution.  Though the painting is stretched as one piece, each hue registered in the tri-color paintings is a different swath of fabric, actually sewn together by a sail maker located a short distance from Salle’s studio at the time, with a stitched erratic line that shoots across the surface.

Arts Club-David Salle, May 2013-15
Installation view of David Salle: Ghost Paintings (The Arts Club of Chicago, 14 May – 10 August 2013). Courtesy The Arts Club of Chicago. Photo: Michael Tropea.

The paintings drive home a relationship to the image at three points in time: painting, performance, and photography.  As a basic structure, the paintings recall something similar to that of Robert Longo’s Men In The Cities, where the improvisational action of the figure becomes the imputes for many representational variations on a theme.  While equally absurd in their approach – you can imagine Longo pitching tennis balls at his friends on a New York City rooftop – the difference lies in the gesture of concealing a figure.  Whereas perhaps we would question of Longo the implications of his contorted figures, we no longer ask if Salle’s model is having a good time or a bad time, since the purpose of the Ghost Paintings appears to redefine a figure beyond emotions, beyond representation.

'92 Ghost 1
David Salle | Ghost 1, 1992, ink on photosensitized linen, 85 x 75 inches, © David Salle, VAGA, NY. Photographer: John Berens.

Instead, Salle serves up the figure as a screen, as a subject we are able to pass through rather transparently, but that also hinders us.  Very much like the sail that the composition of the images reference, we negotiate with the paintings on so many exciting contradictory levels: the painted image as a readymade through the presence of photography, the surface as both a textile, a frame, and maybe even a banner or a flag, conflated with the relationship Salle stages between the depth and surface inherent within the viewing experience itself.

'95 Ghost 6
David Salle | Ghost 14, 1992, ink on photosensitized linen, 85 x 75 inches, © David Salle, VAGA, NY. Photographer: John Berens.

Only one of the paintings in the exhibition directly pictures the figure presumably creating the forms in all the others, a young woman lazily smiling, half of her face revealed with the rest of her figure still covered, reclining underneath the sheet – a composition Godard would have admired.  Despite the pop and commercial elements the tri-color dyes suggest across this canvas in particular, it remains sweet – stubbornly sentimental.  Contrary to my expectations, though the painting reveals its subject in peek-a-boo fashion, it does not divulge any of the mystery or freshness the other paintings have.  They dreamily fold and contort on their own terms, never quite erasing the figure, but rendering it as secondary – the cause of a form, but without distinction.  Salle’s attitude toward the image is ultimately buoyant, somewhere between an all-over pattern painting and something suggestively romantic, but never overt.

Arts Club-David Salle, May 2013-16
Installation view of David Salle: Ghost Paintings (The Arts Club of Chicago, 14 May – 10 August 2013). Courtesy The Arts Club of Chicago. Photo: Michael Tropea.

The exhilaration in these paintings is subdued en masse – each demands a read of their own, though the premise is similar.  In that regard, though the paintings certainly mark a departure for Salle from his work in the 1980s, they register on a similar level within the discourse of similarity and difference; never merged, never separated, but forever and unwontedly as billowing as the figure behind the sheet itself.

Known since the 1980s for his turn to painting in the postmodern moment, David Salle first spoke at The Arts Club of Chicago twenty-five years ago. He lives and works in New York.

Stephanie Cristello is an artist, curator, and writer who lives and works in Chicago, IL.


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