Rico Solinas' "You Never Know" at Anglim Trimble Gallery, San Francisco (from 48Hills.org)

Rico Solinas's Paintings Depict Bay Area with Affection and Humor

RICO SOLINAS: You Never Know
Anglim/Trimble Gallery
March 2-April 27, 2024

Rico Solinas, an Oakland artist who lives in the Mission, is the subject of a You Never Know, mini-retrospective at Anglim/Trimble Gallery,. While the hundred or so paintings, treating a number of subjects, fill the gallery, it must be said that even this embarrassment of riches is but a tiny sampling of Solinas’s prodigious oeuvre of hundreds of notebooks and tens of thousands of paintings. As Senior Preparator at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the artist skips lunches and breaks, opting instead to document the generally unseen labors of his art-wrangler colleagues. He has also worked closely with and learned from some of the world-famous artists circulating through SFMOMA. He told an interviewer, “I’ve worked with a lot of artists in this job, and you pick up a lot of good tips. One of them is ‘Paint every day.’ ”

Painting is a synthesis of focused observation—the Surrealist painter Max Ernst claimed his favorite activity was seeing—and painterly improvisation. The wide-ranging subject matter in this show, which covers almost thirty-five years’ practice, reflects Solinas’s interest in daily life—“I paint what I see,” as the mordant cartoonist Gahan Wilson once joked— filtered through an sensibility both respectful and playful.

In the late 1980s, Solinas, then in his middle thirties, began a series of landscape paintings on the unusual substrate of antique handsaws. This was partly a tribute to his recently deceased grandfather, a carpenter whom Solinas’ s artist mother had herself honored by painting on his circular saw blades to make gifts for her children. The handsaw paintings now displayed  throughout the gallery depict trucks, piping, and industrial machinery, in an homage to manual labor—which includes art making. It is easy, in the resurgence of the labor movement in recent years, to see the series as sharing the celebratory spirit of the working-man art of the Depression and early 1940s. Solinas later expanded the series, now containing hundreds of saws, to depict the art museums that he visited (and worked in) in the United States and Europe, including SFMOMA and other Bay Area institutions, in the aptly named series,100 Museums: Paintings of Buildings That Have Paintings Inside.

In 1990, Solinas  painted a series of carefully observed portraits of the naval ships docked at Hunters Point (a WWII Navy base now housing artist studios), setting them in heaving, theatrical seas. The long rectangular paintings on panel , marine typology, resemble the ship paintings adorning boys’ plastic model kits, and their oddly skewed horizon lines, which the installation plays up by installing some of the thirteen works at odd angles, exude a storm-tossed vibe, as if the works had been hung on rotating gimbals, never to spill their contents no matter how buffeted, in true ship shape. Across the gallery hangs Solinas’s 1991 painting, “151Third Street,” depicting the jumbled skyline of the downtown neighborhood that four years later would house the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,. The painted skyline is oddly canted at about 7 degrees to the left, similar to those ubiquitous  photos of San Francisco’s hilly streets with the streets aligned with the bottom of the picture margin and the lined-up houses apparently tilted askew; the gallery has humorously installed the painting tilted so that the buildings look plumb (as we know most of them to be)..

Later in the 1990s, came a series of tondo (circular-format) works depicting windblown trees and commercial signage motifs from our urban infrastructure. Instead of painting from photos, Solinas painted these twenty-four works on-site, with his back to the motifs, working from a convex mirror attached to his easel, providing a wide-angle peephole distortion. This absurdist shoot-over-the-shoulder Annie-Oakley approach, with its resultant backward-reading looking-glass messages, remakes Pop Art motifs from ‘vulgar’ contemporary life with engaging wit and humor.

FInally, in 2020, with the advent of the covid pandemic, Solinas began a series of small plein-air (outdoor) gouache (opaque watercolor) paintings on paper, documenting the street life of the Bayview District, in southeast San Francisco. If the predominantly minority Bayview is regarded with trepidation by the cautious, Solinas’s corrective views of la vie bohémienne, which have gained a wide audience on Instagram and Facebook (where I first saw them), betray neither angst nor indignation over social injustice. The Bayiew’s denizens are carefully observed,, but Solinas eschews photographic realism in favor of cheerful distortion. He depicts not individual people so much as characters in a scene, as if onstage, performing in, say, a music or opera. Again, the depictions of working-class life by sympathetic Depression artists come to mind. Solinas: “A couple figures, a couple buildings… I just want to capture everyday places that people go to.” The Bayview, a book with sixty-seven of these friendly paintings inside, so to speak, has just been published.