Like a Shark

By Robert Long, Salomon Contemporary, East Hampton 2006 Catalog

Mature artists rarely leave traces of their influences. You can’t point to exact passages of Ingres or Mondrian in de Kooning paintings although you can sense that those painters inhabited him from time to time, the way aliens lived inside Sigourney Weaver. If you scratch an artist with a fully developed style you will not find a particular chapter from Janson but you might discover a whistle, sixth-grade report cards, an Allman Brothers eight-track tape, crumpled grocery lists. “Like the shark, it contains a shoe,” as Louis Simpson wrote of “American Poetry.”

Mike Solomon’s new paintings and big fiberglass sculpture are powerful not only because they make surprising and clear connections to the natural world but also because Solomon underplays his own unconventionality, something that many artists are unable or unwilling to do, and he has worked his way beyond his models. In this regard I am reminded of two artists I know that Solomon admires, and who, I suspect, exerted some influence on him when he was developing his own way of working.

John Chamberlain is the Rodin of scrap metal, and Dan Flavin was the Barnett Newman of fluorescent tubes, but the impact of their work can sometimes be deflated by its satirical element and by their desire to be viewed as rebels, innovators, bad-boy geniuses. Chamberlain mostly gets away with it because his work has great humor, but Flavin did his best to undermine the freshness of his installations by burdening them with pretentious titles and ponderous documentation. Solomon, on the other hand, thinks things through but doesn’t make a point of it. Because he tends toward understatement in his work, its complexity sneaks up on you.

The fiberglass sculpture and the new paintings in this show are seductive, deceptively simple-looking contraptions that seem to be made of light even while they refer most obviously to water. The sculpture resembles a cresting wave but it is the light inside that collapsing wall of water that is the real subject. You are drawn to stand inside the wave not only because it is womblike but also because it contains light you can’t otherwise experience for more than a few moments. Filtered through seven layers of fiberglass, it is mysteriously familiar and evocative.

Blisters and bubbles in the fiberglass suggest frozen sea foam. The literal web of dark netting that appears to hold the wave in place is actually a way of drawing in the fiberglass. A distorted grid, it suggests here not only a fisherman’s seine but also the skeletal drawing of a computer model, a map of the wave’s surface.

The new paintings are more than the sum of their parts. Solomon has painted outlines of corpuscle-like shapes, like melted chain-link fence, in beeswax on muslin, and then attached the muslin, like a filter, to a canvas on which he has dripped and poured acrylic paint. Only the colors of the paint were determined ahead of time; the image itself is arbitrary. The painting can be seen partially, and vaguely, through its muslin mask; some portions are clearer than others because the web of beeswax is nearly transparent. Looking at the pictures therefore becomes an either/or exercise, and it is while you are thus distracted, shifting your focus from foreground to background, that you see the light.

Only rarely does this light appear on canvas – it happens in Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter, Jane Wilson, and, of course de Kooning – and it can only be represented indirectly. Solomon, however, is of a different generation and temperament, and the materials he uses allow him to treat light more directly. What he has accomplished in these paintings is more on the level of magic than mimicry. He shows us something familiar about the world in a way we had not anticipated, and transcendence arrives in that moment of surprised recognition.


Robert Long (1955- 2006)- the author of de Kooning’s Bicyle and numerous books of poetry and prose. The above essay published by Salomon Contemporary, East Hampton, NY 2006 Catalog© Estate of Robert Long