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MICHAEL SALERNO

January 11 - February 8, 2003 at Coagula Gallery, Downtown

by Bill Lasarow


Scribble, scribble, scribble. So much art originates from such basic activities. Artists who root their enterprise in simple and repetitive acts are not in short supply, but the number thins as time passes. Michael Salerno has sustained his commitment to repetitive linear gesture that builds all over compositions of atmospheric color fields for more than twenty years. That fact alone places him in pretty select company. Aside from the quality of the images, and aesthetic issues such as color perception that must be considered, it is fascinating to reflect on what accounts for such lengthy engagement--and where it leads the individual who experiences it.

Salerno favors a monochromatic effect, but achieves it by selecting various mixtures of colors that may work their way or clash towards the dominant hue. Indeed, a key to the present series is that the primary greens, reds, or blues are buttressed with other colors that break pattern. The choices can generate a building tension for the eye, which wants to alternatively reign them into harmony with the dominant hue and look past that to the structure of the ground or interwoven array of lines that is implied without being defined. Layering is a formal constant, but because everything is built up from networks of lines the opacity of color is never an issue. Most artists employ line to serve the goals of description and expression, not accumulation. But accumulation is precisely what this work is all about.

Free associations are also set in motion by virtue of the touch of the linework and its movement across the panel or canvas surface. One image places you in the midst of a meadowful of waving grasses. Another undersea in the midst of a glimmering school of fish. A third is filled with a galactic nebula.

The connection between pre-War European Surrealism and the Abstract Expressionism of the New York school of the 1950’s is well documented and understood. Automatism tapped the unconscious psyche for fresh imagery and styles in the former, which influenced the expressively direct action and color field painting of the latter. The hyperventilated feeling that was a virtual requirement in America’s breakthrough movement gave birth to the minimalist thesis that the reductivist image field reject emotionalism altogether in favor of visual phenomenology and intellectual theorizing.


“Untitled,” 2002, oil on canvas
ground on panel, 18 x 20”.




“Untitled,” 2002, oil on acrylic
ground on panel, 48 x 30”.




“Untitled,” 2002, oil on acrylic
ground on panel, 48 x 30”.





“Untitled,” 2002, oil on canvas
ground on panel, 18 x 20”.





“Untitled,” 2002, oil on acrylic
ground on panel, 48 x 30”.

Salerno’s paintings neatly bracket this stretch of aesthetic history, embracing it all with ambiguity and a degree of irony that reflects a detached amusement with the intermural arguments carried forth in the interest of aesthetic partisanship. Each untitled work embraces the legitimacy of its sources with a genuine hug--but makes no effort to resist adding a tickle to the armpit. The mischievious tone may come across as anti-heroic, the webwork of line as anti-virtuousic, the evolution of the body of work as incidental, but the seriousness of the effort lurks as an undertow.

Though this approach to art is fairly marginal in the context of the present generation, what does place Salerno within the mainstream is his desire to stimulate rather than guide viewer interpretation. That he is just as content for you to experience his images as pure atmospheric clouds as free-associated images of fish is a decidedly Post-modern posture. So, while saluting the modernist past, the absolutism of Clement Greenburg gets the boot.

There is a monastic character at the core of these images that is more native to them than all of the historical and visual reference points. If there are moments of drama or flamboyance in this show, they are the incidental byproduct of Salerno’s working process. The movement, direction and quality of line bears witness to both whimsy and the struggle to maintain engagement with the moment at hand. The relative unimportance of details that will ultimately be subsumed constantly threatens the artist’s intensity, while at the same time inviting him to insert anything that comes to mind. Scribble, scribble, scribble. Salerno has managed to scribble his way to a certain profundity. Without specific intent, there is discipline. Without an agenda, points, not to mention forms, get made. Think it’s easy? Try it sometime.