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The Drawings of Michael Salerno

(edited)*( The Medium has a Sense of Humor) by David S. Rubin


As Michael Salerno begins each drawing with little preconception as to intended results, he is nevertheless self-in acknowledging that he practices the automatist methodology of Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist predecessors. Salerno is determined, however, to add his personal ingredient when implementing an historically-approach. Rather than repeat or imitate the past, Salerno particularizes automatism by focusing it on what he considers to be "sense of place"as well as by garnishing it with inviting touches of ironic humor.

When Surrealists such as Andre Masson and Joan Miro were challenged to free-associate to abstract webs of line or spilled paint, they were remarkably consistent in their visual vocabularies, as they never veered far from the realm of the biomorphic dreamscape. Similarly, after Robert Motherwell introduced the signature bar-and-motif of his Spanish Elegies in the late 1940s, he returned to it again and again throughout a prolific career.

By comparison, the iconographic range of Salerno's drawings is surprisingly vast. Perhaps this is because the artist's quest is much like a time-traveler. In tapping the unconscious during the early stages of the creative process, Salerno'aim is to open up many and varied pathways into the universe-at-large. In order to do this, he has had to repudiate the stylistic limitations that governed a good deal of Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist automatism. Although he shares with Motherwell the acceptance of intervention of conscious decision-during a work'evolution, Salerno is far more interested in iconography than in form. Motherwell'goals were decidedly modernist, with the principal motivation being to discover new abstract configuration. Salerno, on the other hand, embraces a diverse iconographic lexicon which assigns equal value to abstract and figurative elements.

Salerno sees himself as a contemporary cabalist, a trait he shares with the late Wallace Berman. In the verifax collages of the 1960s and 1970s, Berman employed an emblematic syntax of media-symbols to trigger associations about the inexplicable mysteries of the universe. Preferring a more primal approach, where rawness is expressed through the immediacy of direct drawing, Salerno searches for enigmatic images that elicit poetic associations. In this respect, his kinship is with the art of Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, within whose allover webs were camouflaged many of the archetypes that compose the collective unconscious according to Jung. Among Salerno's specified goals is the desire to discover new visual possibilities through unifying the universes of Krasner and Pollock, which Salerno often views as "contracting"and "expanding"respectively.

Salerno'interest in the cabala can be traced to 1979, when he made hundreds of ballpoint pen drawings in which his point of departure was the Aramaic letter lamed. According to the cabala, the universe was created through the uttering of the alphabet, so each letter represents a clue in deciphering the broader meaning of existence. In his recent works, Salerno begins with abstract, automatic meanderings, but willingly allows his conscious wit to recognize the moment an idea has broken through. Once the door has opened, Salerno, at times, controls and playfully embellishes the information that has surfaced. In works such as Across ? (1994)and Juddserraville (1995 ), for example, Salerno emerges as an expert deadpan humorist, perhaps parodying Berman's 1955 -57 sculptural cross in the former, and assaulting the seriousness of minimalists Donald Judd and Richard Serra in the latter.

In titling a recent body of work To Life, Salerno celebrates his heritage. Yet, rather than adopt the rigorous demeanor of the ancient rabbinical mystics, Salerno prefers to investigate life'nooks-and-with an inquisitive yet subtly mischievous spirit. In this respect, he is more a disciple of greatly admired humorist, Shalom Alechim.

David S. Rubin, Curator of 20th Century Art at the Phoenix Art Museum, has held positions at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art; Freedman Gallery at Albright College; San Francisco Art Institute; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Santa Monica College Art Gallery; Galleries of the Claremont Colleges; Scripps College. Mr. Rubin received his Masters Degree from Harvard University.

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