A couple of years ago, David Salle’s new paintings started to bear a striking resemblance to his old ones. The gaudy, intricate, but faintly sterile compositions of the mid-2000s arranging disparate figuration around bright, deadpan abstract swirls, were banished, and – as in popular culture generally – back came the ’80s. Salle used to attach objects such as light bulbs to his canvases and practice a renegade graphic design by floating emphatic but ostensibly unrelated texts over his photo-derived images. He’s doing it again. He used to favour split-screen or windowed compositions, mixing monochrome and colour, which teasingly butted prickly female nudes up against a streaming plurality of whatever. He’s doing it again. He used to paint in a sour, workmanlike, faintly insulting manner. That’s returned too.
The logic of this looking back, codified by Salle’s first London show in eight years via six new paintings, four ’80s-vintage photographs and two new drawings, hits you fast. Salle always had a feel for how stories might pulse out of pictorial discontinuities (and that continues to be apparent here), but the painterly Postmodernism he helped define was also a chilly, no-future vision. For all its criticality, his own peak-period aesthetic has become – in our retro moment – just another ‘look’ to play around with, to revisit. Realizing that, Salle is mordantly doing it himself; and, in so doing, both giving a slow-motion endgame another twist and restoring to his art a disconsolate focus that it’s lacked in recent years.
This was also, not unconnectedly, one of the coldest exhibitions in recent memory. Take the diptych No Hard Feelings (2011). On the left panel is a photo silkscreen, on a silver ground, of an upwardly angled, vaguely phallic tree trunk and a bushy tangle of branches; inset into it is an illuminated green light bulb. On the right is a classically Sallean painting of a woman either about to lift her top or having just lowered it. Things could go either way. Her oval bellybutton is unnervingly like an abyss, an orifice to disappear into. In caps, the painting’s title hangs transparently over her, while a green-velvet museum rope hangs over the lower part of the two images, connecting them. There’s a carnal syntax here that augments the ambivalent semi-nudes, a traffic-light system – being given the green light, having the rope lowered for entry – that repeats in other canvases. In The Imagists (2010), a red rope hangs open before a half-naked woman performing some kind of spine-bending sex/yoga move.
These triggers, which are sometimes equivocal enough before they’re even combined (‘No Hard Feelings’, for example, might refer to a sexual humiliation or a kiss-off), often contradict each other. What one receives, though, is a constant sense of being pushed around by cues that are, frankly, pretty blunt. Appealing to our lower natures, they’re about as far from a transcendent vision of art as is imaginable. (The two drawings, which look intentionally tossed-off, are of hot dogs.) The toned black and white photographs, of women cavorting in their underwear with paper lanterns, are queasily lit reduxes of Bill Brandt and Man Ray that posit a manipulative, sleazy character making them. That character, though, feels like a construct of Salle’s, not the artist himself, and in our consciousness of that, we’re again aware of being dragged around by him, of jumping through his hoops.
The same is true when Salle ladles on the formal rhymes. Penobscot (2011) splits into three images: an inverted view of a small boat on green water resembling a children’s illustration, and, below, colour and black and white images of half-dressed women with their heads obscured (behind arms, removing or putting on a top). Here the boat’s pointy prow, the jagged strip of landscape beyond it and the shadows and curves of the women’s bodies all harmonize tidily, giving a formal rationale for a knowingly disagreeable figuring of women as, potentially, headless sex objects. Salle sets this in churning motion, and you hear his commentary behind it: not only is this not nice, it’s not even new.