Phil Solomon is categorized as an experimental filmmaker, a label both redundant (experimentation being implicit to every art) and inadequate. Solomon is a cinematic painter, a cultural anthropologist, an archaeologist of personal and collective memory and a kinetic poet.
Several L.A. institutions have showcased Solomon this month with one-night screenings of his widely exhibited prize-winning films. “Phil Solomon: Before and After the Falls,” a complementary exhibition at Young Projects, offers a sustained opportunity to experience a range of new and older work.
The show has enough heft to attract confirmed Solomon enthusiasts, and more than enough sensual, intellectual and emotional magnetism to convert new initiates.
Solomon, who teaches at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has been making films for more than 30 years, largely using found footage that he rephotographs, manually and chemically manipulating speed, surface, tonality and texture. Works on view from the ‘90s include “The Exquisite Hour” and “The Snowman,” both deeply moving, elegiac montages (14 and eight minutes, respectively) that cast memory, the past, as a fibrous thicket of contingency.
A recent film, “Psalm IV: Valley of the Shadow,” pairs moody landscape imagery culled from a video game with John Huston’s reading of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” In a series of nominally interesting “Digital Paintings” from 2012-13, Solomon translates film stills into pixelated semi-abstractions, pseudo-smeared and faux-gestural.
The centerpiece of the show is the epic 56-minute, three-channel installation “American Falls.” A dozen years in the making (2000-2012), the film was commissioned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where Solomon was sparked by Frederic Church’s mid-19th century painting of Niagara Falls and, as he puts it in accompanying notes, all of the monuments to the “fallen” in the D.C. area.
A gorgeous and haunting meditation on American history, the film marries narrative economy with textural lushness. Images of the falls weave in among other national, foundational icons -- Monticello, the Liberty Bell, the transcontinental railroad -- and serve as a metaphor for a kind of relentless, downward momentum.
The country’s history unspools, from FDR to JFK, cinematic touchstones (Harold Lloyd, King Kong) are interspersed with social milestones (wars, lynchings and demonstrations), signs and newspaper headlines pop up like inter-titles: Danger; Armistice.
We see Walt Whitman’s pen forming the words “I hear America singing,” only the song is a dirge, Whitmanesque in scope and fervor but a lamentation more than a celebration.
Solomon at once accelerates time and slows it down, rendering it viscous. He sends events stuttering forth, the images crackling, pulsing, decomposing. Celluloid doubles as delivery system and animate surface, a geological skin of parched earth, billowing magma, in a palette of russet, sepia, umber, amber. Against the sounds of tolling bells, lumbering trains and “God Bless America,” fragments of our national story churn, engulfing us as they are engulfed.
Young Projects, Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave., (323) 377-1102, through Aug. 2. Closed Sunday and Monday. Saturday by appointment. www.youngprojectsgallery.com