I like to think of myself as someone who behaves with a minimum of decorum in public places. But that self-image evaporated when I walked into the Maine Jewish Museum’s current exhibit, “Enter the Space: Oliver Solmitz” (through February 25). I gasped as I exclaimed “Holy cow!” out loud. Luckily no one was in the gallery at the time.
I first saw Solmitz’s work at Greenhut Galleries last January and was immediately taken with it, especially the pieces he executed in rusted steel. At this time Solmitz was, by his own admission, working primarily through the prism of his architectural training (he studied under such luminaries as Louis Kahn and Roger Richmond, who founded the architecture program at the University of Maine Augusta). The architectural influence of his work was significant, but you could also discern a clear sculptural presence in many rooms.
I commented in my review of that show that I would love to see Solmitz work on a large scale, and in July he sent me pictures of a piece he had done at the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation in Rockland .
“I’ve done some large bas-relief panels and a few small rather polished pieces,” he wrote, “but over the past few weeks I’ve been building an architectural piece of wood that’s about 6 x 10 x 6 feet.”
I was excited.
Still, that didn’t prepare me for what I stumbled upon, dumbfounded, at the Jewish Museum. That’s because Solmitz exploded in so many directions at once, not just in terms of scale. The exhibition statement reads: “Rather than making objects, Oliver Solmitz studies the qualities of space defined by structure and color, revealed by light.”
These are, of course, related concerns for architects and sculptors. But what immediately struck me was that Solmitz is now exploring them from an entirely sculptural perspective.
What’s the difference, you ask? Architecture conducts these investigations in the context of interior space versus exterior space, with the end goal being the creation of rooms that house, contain and nurture the human narratives within them.
For a sculptor, these qualities – freed from function or focused on human presence and history – become ends in themselves. They can now simply function as concepts to be explored without restraint, endless riffs on the pure qualities of space, color, light and shadow, visibility and concealment, unlimited and of interweaving, of access and exclusion, of structure and openness.
The gallery’s first work, a corrugated wall sculpture titled “Orange with Black Marks,” retains a connection to architecture, indicating a kind of portal. It’s not the strongest piece on the show, but what it immediately establishes is how Solmitz’s expanded foray into color gives his work weight and life that wasn’t also evident in the previous work.
Compare this piece to an unpainted sculpture like “Cardboard with Cat Shapes” (#17) and you immediately see why. The orange of the first gives an impression of volume, substance and presence that the second lacks. The “cat-shaped cardboard” appears bland and featureless, its material never exceeding its daily function as packaging material. This, however, is a rare exception.
Even what Solmitz probably meant by “pretty polite little bits” in his email comes to life through color. The proof? The sequence from #6 to #9 incorporates steel and panels of what looks like hardboard (i.e. masonite) which he painted blue, purple and olive green.
These are reminiscent of the shapes of Donald Judd-type miniature boxes. But where Judd’s pieces were coldly rational, the color here sends the intellectual resonance we feel with Judd’s work reverberating throughout our bodies and into our hearts and stomachs. They are unquestionably elegant. Yet they are no longer emotionally distant.
Color is only one facet of the eruptive quasar of Solmitz’s imagination. He also experiments with combinations of materials drawn from a much wider palette than his previous work. This includes the aforementioned steel, cardboard, and hardboard, as well as nuts and bolts, plywood, particle board, pine two-by-fours, white oak, packing tape, wire, and something called MOFs (defined as metal-organic frameworks, a hybrid organic-inorganic crystalline porous material that has produced cage-like molecular structures).
The diversity of effects is fascinating. A piece like “White oak vertical” (#14) is all about craftsmanship, precision and subtle contrasts between wood grain directions. It presents itself as a carefully refined, meticulously constructed and tastefully monochromatic jigsaw puzzle.
Then look at a piece like “Orange with Blue Cube” (#19), made of corrugated cardboard painted a deeply saturated orange and said cube (which has the visual texture of pumice stone) painted neon blue. The whimsy here couldn’t be in starker contrast to #14. Its orange shape resembles a large, elaborate structure whose sole purpose is to hold this tiny blue block in place. One end of it curls up like a mischievous grin. The paint colors are reminiscent of the team colors of Howard Johnson or the Florida Gators.
These two sculptures occupy opposite ends of Solmitz’s visual and material vocabulary. Something like “Yellow Diptych” (#33) and “XYZ Planes with Circle” (#20) inhabit a middle ground.
The diptych is made of cardboard and yellow paint, with the surfaces of each component precisely marked to create vacant linear recesses within them. The bottom square has a yellow surface, the recesses revealing the natural color of the cardboard, while the top square reverses this combination. Positive-negative spaces, defined by color and subtraction, along with minimalist geometry, give this humble material a surprising sophistication.
The planes of #20 – variously made of plywood (painted and unfinished), oak, cardboard, hardboard and screws – converge like a Suprematist composition by Kazimir Malevich brought to life in two dimensions. Still, the white, lime green, and budgie yellow keep things light, and the holes cut into two of the planes playfully invite us to peek through different peephole views.
And then, of course, there is the size. “The Large Freestanding Piece of Wood” (#21) is, frankly, prodigious. Made of two-by-fours, plywood, and particleboard, it’s essentially a balance of planes and open box shapes that feel both solid and wobbly when collapsing. It’s about so many things: balance and instability, light and shadow, full and empty, structure and spontaneity, transparency and opacity, air and shapes in that air.
This sculpture needs more space around it than the installation allows. At the very least, it must be removed from the corner by several centimeters. Its current position does not allow the sculpture to breathe nor to see the works in the corner without feeling cramped.
Moving it would also bring “The Large Freestanding Piece of Wood” closer to “Big Blue with Yellow Interior” (#26), which feels like a bridge between Solmitz’s older and newer works. “Big blue” explores many paradoxes inherent in “freestanding”, but articulates them with bright colors. On the other hand, its use of walls, dollhouse-like cross-sections, windows and views has more affinity with the architectural approach in its thematic reliance on enclosure and interior space.
This is not a review of “Big blue”, which is endlessly intriguing to watch. The juxtaposition would simply be more stimulating. But, honestly, pacing is something that’s not lacking in “Enter the Space.”
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]
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