Mixed-media artist Solis combines Ppstmodern and precolonial influences to imagine a better world
by Brent Calderwood
San Francisco artist Solis has been making and showing his work since 2009. Born and raised in California’s Salinas Valley (John Steinbeck, another Salinas native, described the agricultural region in several of his novels), Solis’s work reveals a heady mix of influences, embracing everything from Native American and indigenous art to Keith Haring and Japanese comics (manga).
A graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh’s Digital Design program, Solis employs modern silkscreen and reproduction techniques to give a mechanized, cotton-candy sheen to creations that are essentially organic, equal parts postmodern and precolonial. The cartoon-like characters who show up in his work are themselves a mix of old and new, recalling—whether in Day-Glo silkscreens on plywood or in molded resin figurines affixed to repurposed vintage radio tubes—both the minimalist geometric designs of Hopi and Pueblo kachina dolls and a War of the Worlds–like retro vision of the future.
This specificity of vision is what sets Solis apart. His creations inhabit a parallel universe—literally. Not unlike that other Salinas native, Solis creates imaginary worlds for his characters to inhabit, full of their own histories, hierarchies, customs, and moral codes. These days, the majority of Solis’s creations live on Wildewood, a planet outside of our solar system beset by a deadly virus and in the throes of its own pandemic, with friends and family struggling to find a way to save their world.
Of course, this narrative doesn’t need to be memorized in order to appreciate Solis’s startling, whimsical graphics and 3-D assemblages, but knowing about it somehow injects the work with even more fun, depth, and pathos. In that spirit, Solis has illustrated and co-authored a graphic-novel series titled We Are Wildewood with his partner Chad Schimke, the first installment of which can be downloaded for free at heartofsolis.com.
Solis’s most recent show, at City Art Gallery in San Francisco in June 2013, was called “Raya-Dee-O Ga-Ga,” a sly allusion to the similarly titled Queen song but also the name of a homing beacon device that helps the inhabitants of Wildewood communicate with potential allies in other universes—even, presumably, with us Earthlings.
I recently spoke with Solis about his art, Wildewood, and what it all means.
Brent Calderwood: How did you come up with this imaginary world, the context for your art?
Solis: The vision came to me in a dream. I saw a bear, bird, and alligator walking together, with the bear in the lead, the alligator biting his tail, and the bird riding on his back. The bear spoke—“We are Wildewood.” As soon as I woke up the next morning I started sketching.
Is this a utopian world? Or are there real-world problems there?
Wildewood was a utopian world until “Uno” visited and unleashed a virus, which the Alpha gems and the Warren are attempting to cure. Our real-world parallel is the attempt to enforce perfection and assimilation in order to create a perfect universe. This reflects oppressed groups, social class separation, and ethnic cleansing as well as the struggle to find a cure for devastating illnesses. As an HIV-positive person, my decision to incorporate the story arc of the devastating virus is directly connected to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
You mention several names in your universe: Uno, Alpha gems, the Warren. And then there is the name you go by professionally, Solis….
The Alpha gems take the forms of animals—a cat, a bunny, an alligator, a monkey, or an owl. They represent the forces of healing, positivity, curiosity, and wonder that are defiant in the face of the epidemic. Uno is the nemesis to the Alpha gems. He believes he is the beginning and the end, perfect and all-encompassing, able to absorb all healing forces, to replace them with sickness and cynicism. He is ultimately greedy, seeking to soak up all their good, literally like a sponge, taking their special qualities to use for his own selfish aims. The characters of the Warren are silent observers of the universe who take the form of mechanical rabbits who walk on two legs like a person. On rare occasions they step in to intervene with a distressed planet. All of the Wildewood characters are part of the same story with multiple story arcs.
I chose my moniker in honor of my Mexican-American mother, whose last name is Solis [pronounced so-LEEZ]. She is my role model, very creative and talented. I grew up watching her make doll fashions; she sold them at local marketplaces in Salinas, which inspired me to make art.
Speaking of dolls, you mention kachina dolls and other traditional art forms as influences and inspirations. Can you tell me more about artists and cultures that influence your work?
The abstract style of Joan Miró was very inspirational to me when I first started to make art. The experimental use of color, shape, and form gave me a reference point for where I wanted to take my art. There is also an ethnographic feel to the art of
Joan Miró, which drives much of my work today.
As an adult, I look back on childhood, realizing that music was one of my best friends; it helped me through many lonely nights. The hip-hop beats and new-wave sounds I found to be almost hypnotic, taking me into a trance as I danced. I often use music as a backdrop when I’m drawing. The vibrant color palette, geometric shapes, and visual impact of the ’80s and ’90s strongly influence my work. And, of course, there’s Keith Haring. I appreciate the way he creates stories with a few strokes of the pen. I use a similar minimalist approach. He was a master of social commentary with a wide appeal.
Then, I love the playfulness and boldness of manga. Out of all the contemporary art I have seen, it most influences my work. I appreciate stories such as “Sailor Moon,” which takes a tongue-in-cheek attitude in terms of design and story…and I have been a Godzilla fan all my life, which strongly guides my 3-D work.
The Japanese artist Yoshimoto Nara creates art with a childlike innocence that reminds me of the scribbles of a teenage boy that would irritate a teacher. I think some collectors and critics perceive art through a narrow view. In my experience, people want art that is realistic—something they can put on their wall that they don’t have to explain to their friends. They want safe conventional images like flowers, landscapes, cityscapes, and portraits. Nara breaks all the rules. If I learned anything from him, that is to be true to myself. Selling art is my goal, but more importantly, it needs to tell a story.
What are you currently working on?
My art began as rough sketches and written notes. That evolved to digital design, which I developed into silkscreen templates and burned into plywood using laser-cutting tools. Over the last six months I have focused on lamps, light boxes, and assemblage pieces, which utilize all my artistic and design skills. Right now I am in the planning process to produce a new show which features a ripple in time with a reimagined and repurposed take on everything that is functional, practical and useful. I have also recently been creating jewelry pieces—earrings, necklaces, bracelets, brooches, and tie clips created from transistors, batteries, circuits, bulbs, and knobs. These items are currently available at Carousel and Wonderland in San Francisco.
With so many different ideas and projects going on, how does the Wildewood concept still apply to your work going forward?
In the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, our freedom is diminished…by an insidious enemy that we’ve been powerless to stop. While we’re gaining ground, armed with new ways to manage, there’s still no cure in sight.
What the world needs right now is to return to magical campfire stories, two spirits, fairy tales, woodland sprites, H.G. Wells, rocket trips to the moon, and the first peoples’ myths. Wildewood is a world that I’ve created with my art…characters that defy the homogenizing effect of those who desire to strip their creativity and uniqueness. My art imagines the world of 3013, where discrimination and disease are only experienced through history books. A world where identity is universally interchangeable, so everybody imparts what they feel on the inside through freedom of expression on the outside.
Brent Calderwood is Literary Editor of A&U. His Web site is www.brentcalderwood.com.