On the one hand, David Salle’s new paintings look like he’s taken some 1940s cartoon imagery and splodged it willy-nilly on some canvases. And no matter what anyone says, that is a legit reading of these works. They really are messy, chaotic, reworkings of bawdy old drawings and ads. You can have that as your take and waltz out of here, no qualms.
But on the other hand, there’s something else going on in these paintings. A giant golf shoe takes up as much space as a cartoon woman’s cleavage in one work, a giant leg of ham fights for pictorial dominance with a smiling male patient in another. You realise that every visual element here is engaged in a battle for aesthetic supremacy. Salle is expertly taking your eyes on a walk across each work, and he’s got you on a tight leash, yanking you towards a coffee cup instead of a smiling woman, dragging you towards a Mexican on a donkey rather than a pair of boobs. It’s like one big pictorial rude gag, told by someone who knows exactly how to get a laugh.
By filling these works with old cartoons and advertising imagery, he’s giving the viewer something familiar to grab on to. You recognise these elements just enough for him to twist them out of shape. This really is painting for painters, composition for its own sake: that’s what makes it good.