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John Salt

4 May — 17 July 2011

Ikon presents the most comprehensive survey of paintings by John Salt, drawn from collections in the UK and abroad. Salt holds a unique place in Ikon’s history, being the first artist to exhibit at the gallery in its original Bullring venue in 1965.

Salt’s artistic output since then has been more or less dedicated to the portrayal of cars; a subject rooted in his upbringing in Birmingham, a city of car manufacturing, and then developed while studying for a scholarship at Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore. Salt’s early car paintings are reproductions of the slick images found in Buick sales brochures, produced to sell the American Dream. Bride (1969), for example, with its view through the passenger’s door, encourages us to linger on the luxurious red upholstery.

After moving to New York City in 1969 Salt was inspired by cars dumped under the approach to Brooklyn Bridge. Instead of reproducing images that promised a future of happy motoring, his works embodied the jolting violence of wrecked vehicles. Falcon Patchwork Surface (1971) displays traumatised bodywork, broken windows and deflated tyres. Pontiac with tree trunk (1973) sees a once cherished car come to a standstill, battered and discarded.

A sense of abandonment is prevalent in works including Desert Wreck (1972) and Purple Impala (1973). The now redundant cars are symptomatic of a marginalised lifestyle, a world of shacks and trailer homes, locations far from the affluent metropolis. The overall effect jars, especially in an American landscape, which is also prone to idealisation in the popular imagination.

Salt continues to work, now producing canvases in which, rather than focusing on disrepair and destruction, convey subdued resignation. The vehicles are functioning, but like Catskill Cadillac 1994–1996), are alienated in their environment. Ultimately Salt’s photorealist style conveys a profound grasp of Western (capitalist) culture and an insight into the changing nature of value and desire.