On ViewClub Rhubarb
April 11 – July 25, 2021
I could feel the needle penetrating each hole over the mesh canvas in Sal Salandra’s paintings at the Chinatown gallery Club Rhubarb. The titillating sensation was not solely due to Salandra’s sewing of bossy leather daddies and eager slaves that populate dungeons and churches rendered on a flat perspective. It generated also from the artist’s fastidious puncturing through the grid, which I could trace in each thread like a freshly completed tattoo or, given the artist’s subject matter, a whip that had just cracked onto flesh.
Visiting Salandra’s exhibition is an all-encompassing experience that starts with the buzzing of an unassuming Canal Street apartment’s door. My curiosity about visiting someone’s actual home while rising on a raggedy escalator was later confirmed when I was asked to take off my shoes at the entrance of textile artist Tony Cox’s loft-cum-gallery which overlooks downtown Manhattan high-rises and Chinatown rooftops. The heat of reaching an undisclosed top-floor gallery (Cox asks visitors not to share the address and vets every inquiry) on a June afternoon is an ideal prompt to delve into Salandra’s thread paintings of male sex, illustrated with a precision which proves that thread may function no differently from paint on canvas.
Muscular male physique has been an appetizing subject for art history: bulbous shoulders and alpine abdomens have yielded opportunities for artists to manifest their merits at rendering light and volume—whether the medium is a flat painting or a three-dimensional sculpture. Salandra’s exploration of the same subject is something of a worship, which demands immense commitment and patience. Each stretch of skin must stem from another puncture until the torso finds its nipple and the thigh meets the buttocks. Light, along the way, is evident on each body. Unlike a brushstroke, however, it doesn’t conveniently wash the subject. Light, instead, requires different shades of color for each thread.
Painstaking endeavors must be a turn-on for Salandra. From church-like settings to the tip of a penis, each inch is a labor of love, commitment, and, I believe, transcendence on the artist’s end. The tightly sewn paintings of dungeons decorated with confessionals, crosses, and domestic furniture come from an artist who clearly creates like his life depends on it. The salvational aura in each painting radiates not only through his mastery of color and form through thread but also from his vivid rendition of sex in a ritualistic devotion. Each figure has his own agency and each narrative a complex configuration against the otherwise presumed homogeneity that stitching conveys.
In Human Ash Tray, from 2016, a man’s mouth is utilized as an ashtray while saliva drips from his tongue. His contented eyes stare at a series of objects floating at a distance: a pair of red stilettos and an unexpectedly domestic arrangement of a tea set on a table. The characteristics of his face are painterly, with lines, shadows, and emotions captured through the thread. The work predates Salandra’s most recent, complex scenes of orgies, in which he blends Hieronymus Bosch’s chaos with the flat pseudo-perspectives of Middle Eastern and South Asian miniature painting. Kiss It (2020) allows Salandra to flex his painterly muscles. A gay fantasy of Courbet’s The Origin of The World (1866), the painting shows two ample cheeks, testicles, and a slight anus, all reclined over a purple bed sheet. Different shades of tan ask the viewer to desire the subject, whose mustache and lips are slightly visible beyond his armpit. This is the show’s only painting with a modern, Western understanding of perspective which here gives a sense of depth through the body’s stretch over the bed. Super Love Shack (2021), Church Taught Sex Is a Sin (2021), Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy (2020), and Say Your Prayers (2020) each constructs a universe of carnal harmony, joined through interlocking limbs, genitalia, leashes, prayer beads, or saddles. Icons of Christianity or Americana backdrop gay sex in all forms, both physical and transcendental. Desire is twofold, both in Salandra’s determined punctures and in men’s ecstatic yearnings.