Federico Solmi: Joie De Vivre
On ViewMorris Museum
September 16, 2022–February 26, 2023
Morris Township, New Jersey
In a series of framed screens, Douche Bag City (2010), where greedy villains are imprisoned for their atrocities, justice is ultimately apportioned. Elsewhere, videos of founding fathers on horseback framed by American flags face a wiggly but proud Native American opposition in a giant tableaux. As Warren Buffett and Oprah Winfrey are captured in one of his newer works, dancing an imaginary waltz to the distorted roar of an imaginary animated orchestra churning nearby, popes and pharaohs glory in malformed and monstrous poses.
Solmi’s solo exhibition Joie de Vivre at the Morris Museum traces his journey from Bologna, Italy, as the son of a butcher born in 1973, to his latest turn as a societal voyeur in the United States, transforming this elegant outpost of the Smithsonian, a little known but spacious museum in deepest Northern New Jersey, into a digital space truly worthy of the term “metaverse.” Solmi deployed his potent tongue-in-cheek point of view, and his abundant gift for drawing the human figure with humor, as powerful weapons that freshly tell a timeless, undulating joke-tale that left me questioning even my own complicity in his imperial denunciations. His mockery, constructed out of pure visual art, cuts so deep that it rocks every fundamental aspiration I walked in with. As familiar assumptions rose and pulsed, magnified and vanished within my nervous system, an endless series of vibrating videos or stills ornately framed—not thoughts, not concepts, but pictures—landed as ideas, rushing at me like a punch to the gut.
One of Solmi’s portraits, The Writer Dissects the Artist (Portrait Of Lawrence Weschler)(2022), in the catalogue, Federico Solmi: Escape Into the Metaverse, could be a reflection of himself, pointing at a book with a meat painting reminicicent of Soutine hanging behind him, perhaps referring to his self-taught, carefully-executed style: a knack for intentional sloppiness and hideous portraiture that blend elegant traditional art practices with new media enough to skew reality obliquely as they connect with his imagined audience in mangled, curious intimacy.
After Solmi joined his brother to run the family business from age nineteen, Solmi moved to New York at the turn of the millennium and immersed himself in digital and video game technology, resulting in animations of his drawings and paintings: Kim Kardashian and Elon Musk as robot conquistadors, King Kong attending the end of the world gnawing on the Guggenheim Museum, Mussolini providing Columbus a ride on his shoulders.
The Bathhouse (2020), an ambitious interactive video installation, pioneers new modes of artistic production, snatching up familiar, rote tropes from our exhausting present and tired history and plunking them into virtual reality for us to interact with and rewrite in real time. New dark, grotesque and clumsy stories merge past and present, events and symbols, into strange, exciting and irreverent possibilities that surprise.
Solmi’s glance indeed allows escape into a, if not the, Metaverse. With subjects knowingly staring back with unsettling, absent, preoccupied confidence, Solmi combines old school painting and drawing chops with music, film, video, and blockchain technologies to create a literal rogues gallery of evil-doers for us: the central player.
He begins with sketches to create a narrative to be enjoyed on threeOculus Quest headsets that hang near a pair of stools. He then sets to work with a team as familiar with gaming technology as he is, bringing each element in the desired tableau to life. After establishing his plot, Solmi scans his visual material into a game engine, using an ornate donut shape as the background. From characters to camera movements, they combine C# scripts and Unity Game Engine technology to create a giant cocktail party ballroom where the viewer can cascade between history’s despots, immersed in water up to their waists. The behind-the-scenes science eases but does not prevent collisions or objects falling into the water which then gently return to their origins or glide aside but with a gentle fluidity in Solmi’s work that is always undermined by a nervous life-force.
This “cultural voyeur influenced by the writings of Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Oriana Fallaci,” is also an autodidactic extender of the traditions of his native countrymen, Paolo Uccello, Giorgio Morandi and Giorgio de Chirico. Solmi deconstructs and reimagines the celebrities he renders as game pieces. He scours the flawed, pulsating lords of our twisted, contemporary landscape, then reaches back into history to expose all perpetrators, turning them into victims of his own dazzling cultural acumen. The armored frailty of these blustery, bloated super-icons crumble under Solmi’s wicked, stunningly-accurate gaze and the crafty application of his skills as both old school draftsman and cutting edge four-dimensional team leader.