David Salle/Imitation of Life

At Mario Diacono Gallery

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, March, 1990)

One of David Salle‘s favorite films is Douglas Sirk‘s “Imitation of Life,” in which Lana Turner plays an actress called Lora and John Gavin is Steve, a photographer who eventually becomes an advertising executive.

Imitation of Life” looks like a Salle painting.  It’s filled with mirror images, divided frames, and black and white photographs.  Everything in the movie is artificial and overwrought.  Lana Turner, blonde and voluptuous, wiggles her hips and juts out her breasts, but there’s no sex in the movie – only images.   Steve tells her, “Your bones – they’re perfect.  My camera could easily have a love affair with you.

Imitation of Life is the perfect postmodern movie.  It’s not about life – it’s a system of signs – a collection of worn-out ideas – an imitation of life. It’s also about ambition.  When Steve takes a picture of Lora, leaning over a billboard at Coney Island, he says, “Now, all I want is to get pictures like this into the Museum of Modern Art.” When Lora turns down a theatrical agent who offers to make her a star if she’ll go to bed with him, Steve tells her to hold on to her dreams.  She replies, “But I can’t – not after tonight.  They seem so stale – so stale I can’t believe in them anymore“.  And when Lora’s teenage daughter falls in love with Steve, she says, “Every time I thought I liked a boy, it was because he reminded me of Steve, and then I’d stop liking him because – because he wasn’t Steve.

Nothing is fresh in a Salle painting, either – everything is seen in reflection or juxtaposition or through a filter or a pane of glass

In the movie’s final scene, all the characters are jammed into a taxi, watching a funeral through the windows.  In Salle’s paintings, too, many different things are happening at once, everything is crammed together, nothing seems finished, and all of the contradictions are left unresolved.

Now Salle is making history by rewriting the art of the past. A big new painting, called “The Mystical Master“, takes off from a tapestry designed by the 16th century Mannerist painter Bronzino, which shows the Bibical story of Joseph spurning the advances of Potiphar’s wife.  In Salle’s painting, Bronzino’s highly stylized figures resemble Sirk’s Hollywood icons, and the elaborate bedroom where the seduction scene takes place could easily be on the map of Homes of the Stars.  Joseph, like Lora, is a romantic.  The world tries to cheapen and seduce him, but he holds onto his dreams – while displaying his beautifully muscled body.

Looking at Salle’s paintings is like watching “Imitation of Life” – you can’t really believe in it, but it gets to you, all the same, and  even though it looks like a joke, it feels like a tragedy.  As Lora says,

“It’s funny, the way things turn out.”

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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