Mike Solomon Makes His Mark

Mike Solomon’s art is, in his words, “rooted in materials and what they can do.” This means not only the physical properties and capabilities of his media, but how they can function to express his concepts in tangible form. Over the past six years, his two- and three-dimensional work has explored the potential of wax, watercolor and resin as vehicles for a deeper understanding of the phenomena that fascinate him.
Ever since the ancient Greeks applied color to their white marble statues, artists have been disguising the true nature of their materials. Oil paint has imitated everything from solid rock and human skin to sunlight and smoke. But in the 20th century a new feeling for the integrity of media gave rise to a process-based approach to creativity, the poles of which were abstract expressionism and minimalism. Solomon’s work occupies territory between those two extremes.

Mindful of the long tradition of abstracting from nature—Arthur Dove, whose work he admires, preferred to call it “extraction”—Solomon exploits the analogy between flowing water and liquid pigment. Inhabiting the same coastal environment that inspired Jackson Pollock, James Brooks and Willem de Kooning, and finding similar sustenance in the elemental forces that animate their art, he acknowledged that kinship in his diary. Admiring the way a de Kooning green captures the sea’s essence, he noted: “The tint is site specific – it comes from my ocean. I am imbued with it.”

His longstanding devotion to watercolor, which he uses to record his observations of the ocean, with its rhythmic tides and translucent reflective surface, has evolved into an independent entity—a material in its own right, rather than a mimetic device. The ocean also inspired his series of wave-shaped fiberglass sculptures, which echo the flowing curves of surf without literally imitating them. It isn’t the wave per se, but the arching form that folds in on itself, the translucence of a curtain of water, and the dynamic forces that give the wave its structure, that Solomon translates into art.

The shapes are made on armatures overlaid with netting that serves to measure and define those forces. Pulled this way and that, the netting’s grid pattern illustrates the wave’s twist and torque without losing its own fundamental character; Solomon describes it as “a way of visualizing that energy.” It also illustrates how, in art as in nature, large complex structures are made of small building blocks. In fact the finished sculptures are pieces of larger shapes that the artist has edited, implying that they could continue to evolve the way a wave rolls along the shore.

This kind of conceptual momentum—animating art that is inherently static—is also fundamental to Solomon’s watercolor and resin works. Exploring chromatic relationships through layering, he applies watercolor in horizontal and vertical strokes to mulberry paper (one translucent material on another) and saturates the paper with resin, which makes it nearly transparent. Then another sheet with another color is added, and the process is repeated until a sandwich of multiple layers is created. Each new color interacts with those underneath, subtly changing its character without masking it.

The remarkable vibrancy and spatial ambiguity of Solomon’s layered watercolors are functions of the media he has chosen. But those media are only tools. He uses them not for their own sake, but for the effects they allow him to achieve. They create optical blending while keeping the pigments separate, and the process itself enables him to be both spontaneous and deliberate as he develops his compositions. As the colors aggregate, the inherent grid structure becomes more apparent. The luminosity of the resin-saturated paper further emphasizes the color shifts that occur when brushstrokes overlap. “I’m not hiding what I did before,” Solomon explains, “but I have a chance to make a new decision with each layer.”
The buildup of discrete strokes owes a debt to Philip Guston’s 1950s abstractions, another influence acknowledged in Solomon’s working notes. But whereas Guston’s brushwork is thick and opaque, Solomon’s encourages the eye to penetrate. While Guston’s energy is implosive, drawing the eye toward ever-denser bundles of paint, Solomon’s is expansive, allowing light and air into the compositions.
These recent works are rooted in his earlier muslin paintings, with their interactive surfaces that simultaneously mask and expose what lies beneath. Like the resin watercolors, they combine two seemingly disparate techniques. “Putting the opposites together was what was so interesting to me,” he says. The underlying canvas is unstructured and free-flowing, painted wet on wet with poured pigment, while the muslin overlay is a grid-based wax drawing enlarged from a small study. Wax makes the drawing translucent, so the random color underneath peeks through the surface, and the regular pattern gives coherence to the composition.

Whatever the medium, all of Solomon’s work invites contemplation and reflection. Some of it is literally reflective—light bounces off shiny resin and shimmering wax—and colors are activated by illumination that penetrates shallow but perceptible space. But these physical properties alone don’t account for its fascination. It is that extra, intangible element, going beyond the material’s sensuous appeal—what Solomon calls “taking it to the next level”—that sets it apart. His art embodies fundamental qualities that he perceives in nature, for which he creates aesthetic analogies. Without imitating those qualities he captures their essence, pins it down and offers it as a gift to those who take the time to receive it.

Helen A. Harrison
Sag Harbor, NY
September 2012