“I’m staging little dramas.” — David Salle
Lehmann Maupin presents World People, an exhibition of new paintings by American artist, author, and curator David Salle. It is the artist’s second solo presentation with the gallery in South Korea and the final iteration of his Tree of Life series, begun in 2020. In Tree of Life, Salle mobilizes breezy caricature and gestural abstraction to dramatize matters of art and life across formal, conceptual, and psychological registers.
A general sense of rhythmic musicality pervades each painting. Multiple panels featuring disparate images, colors, and stylistic flourishes, Salle’s paintings reverberate with a distinct aura that transcends narrative description. Despite a leitmotif of figurative elements, storylines are intentionally slippery. Each painting features a cast of cartoon characters bisected by an eponymous tree of life and roiled from below by a swath of abstract brushwork. For example, in Tree of Life, Couple (2023), two figures embrace to the left of an ochre tree, while a third man in a striped outfit stares at the couple from the right. Is he a voyeur? A Peeping Tom in jail stripes or a cuckold in pajamas? Tree branches intersect all three figures, drawing the eye away from the enigmatic interaction, along the tree trunk, and down into the swath of colorful abstraction in the panel below. The tree of life functions as a recurring character throughout the exhibition, gesturing towards the many religious, philosophical, and mythological traditions that understand it as the source of all creation. Its serial presence provides continuity in Salle’s exhibition while instigating dissonant elements of color and abstraction that threaten to explode the black and white melodrama.
Salle’s graphic style in the Tree of Life series is influenced by legendary New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, who established the magazine’s reputation for arch humor. Arno’s compositions often featured playboys, plutocrats, and hedonists, caricaturing situations that exposed the absurd hypocrisies of the New York elite. Salle’s Tree of Life works take on a similar comedic arrangement. His cartoon figures range from members of high society to forest animals, all embroiled in situations whose punchlines seem to have gone missing. Across the exhibition, these characters dialogue and interact with one another, weaving a tapestry of ambiguous yet frenetic action. True to the black and white style of The New Yorker, Salle illustrates his characters in grayscale whereas he renders the trees in bold colors. This contrast brings the body of work to life. Each canvas is energized with a buzz of activity as subjects (both human and animal) and forms (both figurative and abstract) collide and harmonize in the multiple panels of each picture.
In their tandem evocation of the formal and conceptual, the familiar and foreign, Salle’s pictures in the World People mandate a confrontation with the psychological process of viewing art. His works both suggest and withhold a sense of resolution, unearthing a near-universal human tendency to search for and project narratives. The artist’s staged compositions—his “little dramas”—pull viewers into the suggestion of a storyline, only to drive them into the chaos of abstraction. Even as the eye revels in the rich detail of each point and counterpoint, Salle deftly refocuses attention on the composition as a whole. This dynamic lyricism—created by elements that are always more than the sum of their parts—has long been the hallmark of Salle’s singular career as a painter. In the end, as the artist says, “it all comes down to marks made at the end of a brush.”