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

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.