In Madison artist TL Solien's large, often busy paintings and prints, candy colors belie the pictures' melancholy undercurrents and allegories. Literary and pop-culture references - running the gamut from Melville's Moby Dick to Disney's Goofy - are used to investigate Solien's personal experiences, from fatherhood and marriage to life as an artist.
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's new exhibition, "TL Solien: Myths & Monsters," is the first major local show of the artist's work since his arrival here in 1998 to teach in UW-Madison's art department. Yet "Myths & Monsters" covers much more than the last decade, reaching back to the early 1980s and the years Solien lived in rural Pelican Rapids, Minn.
Viewers get a glimpse of life on the Solien family's Pelican Rapids farm in a 1989 documentary about the artist that is running on a continuous loop in the galleries. While one might think a nearly 20-year-old film about an artist wouldn't shed much light, "Voyage of the Tin Man" - a reference to a stand-in Solien uses for himself in his work - is quite illuminating.
In the video, Solien comments that while the New York and L.A. art worlds often view places like the rural Midwest as "provincial," it's really their own refusal to look outside of themselves that is provincial. "They expect the world to come to them," he says. While geographic barriers continue to break down, that statement still seems largely true.
Careerwise, of course, Solien is not where he was two or three decades ago. His work is held in major collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Minneapolis' Walker Art Center.
While I hesitate to use the well worn, often meaningless p-word, Solien's work can be dubbed postmodern in its loose mixing of high and low references, veering from Disney characters to the art-historical canon with visual nods to masters like Picasso, Miró and Chardin. Solien's style is deliberately cartoonish at times, and much of the work seems to express a conflicted, unsteady sense of masculinity, questioning his place in the family structure.
The strongest section of the show, in my view, is a series of six large paintings from the mid-1990s that have a rubbed, eroding quality, as if they contain the seeds of their own decay and dissolution.
While Solien's work is filled with recurring personal symbols, I was especially struck by the fragmented eyes and teeth that frequently crop up. In a way that's a bit hard to put into words, eyes and teeth seem particularly vulnerable and human, yet they also are at the core of how we perceive and world and communicate our thoughts about it. Solien's use of these anatomical bits conveys a kind of grasping, disjointed humanity.
Ultimately, though, there's an impenetrability and sometimes a self-consciousness to Solien's work. While we can recognize Goofy, or a decapitated fish, or the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, Solien uses these symbols in such a personal, inward way that their importance to his experience is difficult for the viewer to decipher. It's up to us to draw our own conclusions, or to find some correspondence with our own experiences.
While not all of Solien's work resonates with me personally, "Myths & Monsters" is a compelling and coherent retrospective that gives viewers a look at one of Wisconsin's most prominent contemporary artists.