4.8 / Review

Paintings of Buildings That Have Paintings Inside: 13 Art Museums

By Mark Van Proyen January 29, 2013

Rico Solinas paints precise renditions of iconic buildings on the toothy blades of discarded handsaws, establishing a pun on the past tense of the verb “to see.” This is an activity rooted in a durable tradition of American folk painting that harks back to the mid-nineteenth century. However, instead of depicting wildlife scenes or images of abandoned farm implements, Solinas draws his subject matter from the contemporary, as in the thirteen paintings on view here, all executed over the past fifteen years. Taking museum architecture as his subject in Paintings of Buildings That Have Paintings Inside: 13 Art Museums, Solinas in effect creates paintings of buildings that contain paintings (and other works of art), reminding us of the sad fact that we live in an age where the mechanisms that deliver artistic content have become more important than the content itself.

It is tempting to take the blades as subtle indications of a covert malice toward the buildings portrayed upon them, drawing an oblique, albeit uncanny, analogy between picturing them and penetrating their surfaces. Yielding to this temptation leads to a playful deconstruction of the theater of enshrinement that is at the core of all museological practice, with the building projects of starchitects representing a newly vainglorious episode in the history of that theater. It is worth noting here that Solinas worked in museums as a preparator for many years, so it can be fairly assumed that he has an insider’s view on museum theatrics. But in an odd twist, all of the paintings position viewers on the outside of the buildings (as if they were trying to see in), their vantage points always set upon or within public space, with all of the copyright caveats that that come part and parcel with such locations. If Solinas were to paint museum interiors in the same spirit, perhaps even giving a nod to the traditional subject of cathedral interiors, he would no doubt face red tape from those institutions’ departments of permissions.

Twelve of the thirty-inch-wide works are presented here in horizontal, semi-panoramic format, the thirteenth being a vertical rendition of the stacked block design of the New Museum in New York. Aside from the hilarity of the way that the foreshortened image of the building matches the narrowing of the saw blade, it is the only work in which the building precludes any information about the time of day or weather conditions. The other works give viewers more information about the environment; Solinas primarily depicts the buildings in late morning or early afternoon, with few signs of urban hustle and bustle disrupting the solemnity of their walls. The lone exception, a 1998 image of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, includes a construction crane positioned to work on an adjacent building (though the stillness of the image suggests that it is the crane operator’s day off).

Solinas brings a stunning high-finish technique to the scenes, evoking a range of art historical precedents, from Canaletto to Edward Hopper, all the while dipping his toes into the transcendentalist aspirations of the nineteenth-century luminists. His painterly surfaces are consistently lustrous in a way that conveys confidence and conviction, but their net effect is one of artistic sobriety. Yet this sobriety is belied by the imagistic relationships between saw and subject matter, which create a collision between an earnest pictorialism and a wickedly funny metapictorialism deliberately full of ironies. Here is how I would describe those ironies: ever

Rico Solinas. SFMOMA, San Francisco, 1998; oil on metal; 7 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery Paule Anglim. 

Rico Solinas. The New Museum, New York, 2008; oil on metal; 29 x 6.5 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery Paule Anglim. 

since the age of the international art fair began in earnest some two decades ago, the art world has fallen ass over teakettle off the financially and technologically over-stimulated cliff of spectacle.

The result is a fatal dilution of what was once celebrated as “aesthetic experience” before it was called “fetishism.” More recently, there have been calls to revive the idea of aesthetic fetishism, substituting something called “recursive form” for the positivistic flatness that Clement Greenberg championed.1 Think of recursion as something opposed to what is signified by the word excursion; it seeks to align, truncate, and collapse formal facts into a model of metonymic self-confirmation.

But Solinas’s paintings point toward an alternative to aesthetic fetishism. That alternative is what I would dub “the picture,” which seems to have some utility in bridging the chasm between fetish (i.e., “recursive painting”) and spectacle (a.k.a. the postmodern art institution’s attempt at competing with popular culture). Even though the picture has long ago been thrown out of the court of art criticism for no good reason, it is now ripe for artistic revisitation because of its ability to contain, organize, and prioritize references while simultaneously resisting the engulfment of spectacle that drowns and dilutes the rest of contemporary life. Herein lies the final irony of Solinas’s deceptively complex artistic project: for all of his playful mocking of the spectacularization of contemporary art, a note of optimism in his paintings suggests that the artist still holds hope that the muses of subtlety and sophistication will inhabit the museums that he paints, even if many of their earthly visitors would rather be tweeting with Snooki.

 

Paintings of Buildings That Have Paintings Inside: 13 Art Museums is on view at Gallery Paule Anglim, in San Francisco, through February 2, 2013.

 

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NOTES:

1. See Rosalind Krauss, Under Blue Cup (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2012). These ideas were given a more detailed treatment by the same author in her 1993 book The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, MIT Press).

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