David Salle’s most recent works on paper are part of an ongoing series called “The Tree of Life” and ar now on view at Skarstedt Gallery East Hampton. The basic template for the series consists of a stylized tree vertically bisecting the picture plane, on either side of which stand male and female characters in poses of interest. The solitary tree and the coupled protagonist comprise a “top” panel; a lower, narrow rectangular panel represents the tree’s roots spreading out under the ground.

In this series, Salle creates a kind of Garden of Eden, one that is rife with canonical symbolism and implied moral conflict. Salle’s representations of the Garden’s inhabitants are boldly monochromatic scenes, inspired by the visual vocabulary of mid-century cartoonist Peter Arno; they depict the couples in varying states of separation and togetherness. The portrayals of the male figures range from forlorn and timid to aggressive and predatory, while the women are by turn guarded and apprehensive, while others are seductive and elegant.

The couples seem to take turns in representing degrees of cluelessness. Bisecting these dynamic vignettes is the tree itself, similarly varied – often barren or infected by a large spiny insect, other times sporting multi-colored leaves, it is an equal actor in the malleable and multifaceted narratives within each drawing.

Exposing the tree’s roots in the “subterranean” panel, Salle reveals what is normally unseen. This “under the earth” slice contains various art historical references: cubist-like as well as lyrical figuration, and all manner of abstract mark making is utilized in the frieze-like horizontal cut separating the lower fourth from the top of each work.

These underground elements can be thought of as the nourishment – some nurturing or benign, others toxic – from which the tree grows. In the paintings, a physical break between the panels, like the interpersonal divides within the cartoon universe, heightens Salle’s distinct, highly personal approach to relational painting.

In the works on paper now on view, the upper/ lower divide – literally the earth’s crust – is represented by a painted line, accentuated here and there with drips of paint; gravity’s pull on the brush marks mimics the literal seepage between upper and lower.

Unlike Salle’s early work, which consciously negated narrative closure, the works in this series tell many stories. Reimagining and re-contextualizing familiar yet disparate pictorial languages, Salle compounds the narrative potential of his figures to produce a highly complex and legible mode of storytelling.

In fact, many if not most, of the elements in these paintings are airborne, aloft, and every element, every mark and gesture within the painting contributes to an overall sense of rhythm and movement.

Salle’s work is found in many public collections in both Europe and America, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA and Guggenheim in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, the Tate Gallery in London, the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, the Albertina in Vienna, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris and the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.

Skarstedt Gallery website