The work of Michael Soltis might be called “text art” in the broadest sense of the term, because they feature and are sometimes (expertly) crowded with letters and numbers, but the problem with the text art appellation is that the numbers and letters in Soltis’ work serve a related but different end than most text in other text art, particularly paintings; while in those works text is a kind of connective tissue of semantic meaning, a sort of announcement by the painting (for example) that organizes and reifies the painting as having a certain kind of materiality and existing in a certain way with respect to the view, in Soltis’ work letters and numbers also serve as connective tissue, but almost completely abstractly: they often float seemingly on or across the surface of the picture plane but what they do, in lieu if giving you something to read, is tie together a breathtaking range of approaches and strategies by virtue of the roman alphabet’s particular curves and shapes; rather than a conceptual hook, they serve as structural latticework, the alternating lines and curves in various colors giving the painting a kind of aleatory pattern with repeated curves and edges forming a bridge underneath which Soltis plays with the last 70 years of approaches to abstract painting.
This isn’t to say that the letters and numbers and the ground are arbitrary or unrelated, but rather that the use of text in painting could collapse in two ways, and Soltis avoids both; the first is that the painting becomes pedantic and dull, the kind of thing Baldessari was lampooning in his early text paintings about painting itself. On the other hand, the inclusion of text itself could seem arbitrary at best, a random scattering of letters and numbers that adds nothing to the painting. Soltis works numbers and letters into the plane of the canvas not to convey a specific readable meaning or to simply slap a letter here or there as a meaningless decorative flourish; instead, the accumulation of the potential of communication is what the paintings seem to address. The idea in a work like I Wanna Be a Cowboy or Be Incredible is that the text assembled here could cohere, and with co-authorship by the viewer they might cohere, but they remain just out of reach, suggesting conversation without reducing the paintings to a simple platform for a conversation.
Being that the letters and numbers structure the canvases regardless of how they’re paint or applied, and that they generously suggest communication while also generously leaving it up to the viewer to create that communication means that behind the lattice Soltis can, as I noted, play with what it is that Soltis is actually painting, the abstraction snuck in behind the text or colliding into it. You’re So Cool, for example, simultaneously touches on pop art, minimalism, and the bold colors of pattern and decoration painting by weaving elements of all three in between the letters and numbers, behind them, or as part of the grid-like structure of the painting itself. The painting looks (and I mean this in a good way) as if someone has carefully vandalized a national flag with the inane chatter that the flag (not the painting) actually suggests. That’s how the text communicates to us: it suggests communication, different acts and efforts of it, and most importantly, different failures of it. Elsewhere the style is different, leading to very different results using the same toolkit; You Gotta Go pushes back through the British strain of pop art into dada and becomes something of a critique of advertising’s inability to elegantly convey any kind of clear and honest message, while Be Incredible suggests a drug-addled Gene Davis painting, a serene placement of precise stripes into which communication has crowded, overtaking the picture plane and reminding us that even in the most reductive of abstract painting, we’re always ready to respond, to both seek a message and to reply accordingly.
That’s the brilliance of Soltis’ work: across a wide span of styles it comments on what it means for art to communicate to us, and what it means for us to talk to one another about all things visual, from advertising to hard-edge abstract painting. The seemingly arbitrary letters and numbers represent both ghosts of past communication and the possibility of future interaction, both nostalgic and hopeful at the same time without resolving into the simplicity of either.