Visual Arts

Rico Solinas' Saw-Blade Paintings Elevate a Folksy Tradition

My grandfather died, quickly and unexpectedly, on Thanksgiving Day in 1987. My mother returned from his Ohio funeral with a suitcase full of Grandpa's circular saw blades. Mom, a prolific oil painter, gessoed the blades and used them as canvases for landscapes that she gave to each of her five children as a remembrance of her father-in-law, a career carpenter who'd loved making things with wood.

I thought she was mad. I didn't know then that saw-blade painting has a long history, dating back to the 18th century, and is among the earliest versions of tole painting, which for a very long time was limited to folk art renderings on tin and other metal ware. (Somehow, tole painting has grown over the years to include any kind of folksy painting on wooden objects and furniture.) I've run across saw-blade paintings since, always done on circular blades and always too pastoral for my taste.

Rico Solinas' saw-blade paintings, now on display at the ASU Art Museum, are neither folksy nor circular. His "100 Museums: Paintings of Buildings That Have Paintings Inside" is a stunning collection of architectural portraits done on old hand saws, and may — if the exhibit travels and receives the acclaim it deserves —elevate saw painting's folksy reputation.

Solinas is a native of Oakland, California, who studied at Corcoran School of Art and who's best known as a painter of figuratives and landscapes. In the late '80s, he created a series of saw-blade paintings of trucks and service vehicles that paid homage to the American work ethic; a later series depicted the homes of fellow California artists. The new series, despite its title, is an exhibit of 102 paintings and features stunning, photo-realistic depictions of the world's museums, painted over a 13-year period. Some are solemn in muted grays and tans, like Rome's majestic Galleria Borghese; others pop with joyous splashes of color, as with the hyper-moderne Museum Ludwig in Cologne (home to Gottfried Helnwein's shocking Last Supper).

Solinas, a preparator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, brings the genius of a gifted miniaturist to each painting: here, the minute detail of a wee outbuilding of the Stedeljik in Amsterdam; there, the tiny scrolling on the pillars of the Museo Morandi in Bologne. There's some playful irony in these paintings, too — the tension between the rough, old-fashioned hand saws painted with depictions of modern glass-and-chrome structures, the paradox of a hallowed home of exquisite fine art depicted on a homely hand tool.

Those tools — or their gorgeous, often ornate handles, at least — nearly steal Solinas' thunder. Hand-carved, paint-chipped, and rubbed smooth by sweat and a firm grip, the saw handles are themselves a kind of art. I resisted the urge to discuss the collecting of saws when I briefly met Solinas at the exhibit's opening-night party last month. Instead, I asked why he paints on saw blades. "I don't want to make something that's already showing in a museum," he told me. "I wanted something unique that would make sense hanging there, but that you wouldn't find around the next corner."

He's succeeded. Presented in a more traditional manner, these would merely be neat, accurate oil paintings of a lot of interesting buildings. And while their presentation is quite dramatic — five groupings of roughly 20 saws each — it's an up-close inspection of the paintings that reveals their genius.