I like to think of myself as someone who behaves with a modicum of decorum in public places. But that self-image evaporated when I walked into the current exhibit at the Maine Jewish Museum, “Enter the Space: Oliver Solmitz” (through Feb. 25). I gasped, exclaiming “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, particularly the pieces he executed in rusted steel. At that time, Solmitz was, self-admittedly, working mostly through the prism of his architectural education (he studied under such luminaries as Louis Kahn and Roger Richmond, who founded the architecture program at University of Maine Augusta). The architectural influence in his work loomed large, but you could also discern clear sculptural presence in many pieces.

I commented in my review of that show that I would be excited to see Solmitz working on a large scale, and in July, he sent me photos of a piece he had completed at the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation in Rockland.

“I made some large low-relief panels, and some rather polite small pieces,” he wrote, “but over the last weeks I built an architectural piece of wood that measures roughly 6 x 10 x 6 feet.”

I was excited.

Still, that did not prepare me for what I stumbled into, dumbfounded, at the Jewish Museum. That’s because Solmitz has exploded in so many directions at once, not just in terms of scale. The show statement reads: “Rather than making objects, Oliver Solmitz investigates qualities of space defined by structure and color, revealed by light.”

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These, of course, are kindred concerns for both architects and sculptors. But what was immediately apparent to me was that Solmitz is now exploring them from a wholly sculptural perspective.

What’s the difference, you ask? Architecture conducts these investigations within the context of interior versus exterior space, the end goal being the creation of rooms that shelter, contain and nurture the human narratives within them.

For a sculptor, these qualities – freed of function or focus on human presence and story – become ends in themselves. They can now simply operate as concepts to explore without restraint, endless riffs on the pure qualities of space, color, light and shadow, visibility and concealment, boundlessness and boundedness, access and exclusion, structure and openness.

The first work in the gallery, a corrugated cardboard wall sculpture called “Orange with black marks,” retains a connection to architecture, indicating as it does some sort of portal. It is not the strongest piece in the show, but what it establishes right away is how Solmitz’s expanded foray into color gives his work heft and life that were not as apparent in the earlier work.

Compare this piece to an unpainted sculpture like “Cardboard with cat shapes” (#17) and you immediately see why. The orange of the former imparts a sense of volume, substance and presence that the latter lacks. “Cardboard with cat shapes” appears bland and featureless, its material never rising beyond its quotidian function as packing material. This, however, is a rare exception.

Even what Solmitz probably meant by “rather polite small pieces” in his email come alive through color. The evidence? The sequence of #6 through #9 incorporate steel and panels of what looks like hardboard (i.e. Masonite) that he painted blue, violet and olive green.

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These recall miniature Donald Judd-like box forms. But where Judd’s pieces were coolly rational, the color here sends the intellectual resonance we experience with Judd’s work reverberating through our entire body and into our heart and belly. They are unquestionably elegant. Yet they are no longer emotionally remote.

Oliver Solmitz, “White oak vertical”

Color is just one facet of the erumpent quasar of Solmitz’s imagination. He is also experimenting with combinations of materials pulled from a far broader palette than his previous oeuvre. This includes the aforementioned steel, cardboard and hardboard, plus nuts and bolts, plywood, particle board, pine two-by-fours, white oak, packing tape, wire and something called MOF (defined as metal-organic frameworks, a hybrid organic-inorganic crystalline porous material that 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 directions of wood’s grain. It comes off as a thoroughly refined puzzle, meticulously constructed and tastefully monochromatic.

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 could not be in starker contrast to #14. Its orange form looks like an elaborately large structure whose sole purpose is to hold this miniscule blue block in place. One end of it curls up like a mischievous smile. The paint shades are reminiscent of Howard Johnson’s or Florida Gators team colors.

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.

Oliver Solmitz, “Yellow diptych”

The diptych is made with cardboard and yellow paint, the surfaces of each component precisely scored to create vacant linear recesses within them. The bottom square has a yellow surface, with the recesses revealing the cardboard’s natural color, while the top square reverses this combination. The positive-negative spaces, defined by color and subtraction, as well as the minimalist geometry, give this humble material a surprising sophistication.

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Oliver Solmitz, “XYZ planes with circle”

The planes of #20 – variously made of plywood (painted and raw), oak, cardboard, hardboard and screws – converge like a Suprematist composition by Kazimir Malevich coming into two-dimensional life. Yet the white, lime green and parakeet yellow keep things light, and holes cut into two of the planes playfully invite us to look through different peephole views.

And then, of course, there is size. “Large freestanding wood piece” (#21) is, quite frankly, stupendous. Made of two-by-fours, plywood and particle board, it is basically a balancing act of planes and open box shapes that feels at once solid and teetering on collapse. It is about so many things: equilibrium and instability, light and shadow, solid and void, structure and spontaneity, transparency and opacity, air and forms within that air.

This sculpture needs more space around it than the installation allows. At the very least, it needs to be pulled out from the corner by several inches. Its current position neither allows the sculpture to breathe nor makes it possible to view the works in the corner without a sense of being cramped.

Moving it would also bring “Large freestanding wood piece” closer to “Big blue with yellow interior” (#26), which feels like a bridge between Solmitz’s older and newer work. “Big blue” explores many of the paradoxes inherent in “freestanding,” but articulates them with vivid color. On the other hand, its use of walls, dollhouse-like cross-sections, windows and vistas has more affinity with the architecture approach in its thematic reliance on enclosure and interior space.

This is not a criticism of “Big blue,” which is endlessly intriguing to look at. The juxtaposition would simply feel more stimulating. But, honestly, stimulation is something that is not in short supply in “Enter the Space.”

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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