Thursday, April 17, 2008

May Artist: Delving into the Dark

He’s a nationally recognized artist (with work at the Art Institute of Chicago, Whitney Museum of American Art, among many other museums and private collections) and a true Midwesterner (born in North Dakota, raised in Minnesota, and a professor in UW–Madison’s art department since 1997).

The prolific T.L. Solien is also the focus of a new show at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

T.L. Solien: Myths & Monsters, which runs May 17 to August 17, traces the artist from the 1980s to the present through more than sixty of his complex, sometimes familiar and always deeply personal works of art.

Viewers will see the wide-ranging phases of his art-making: His move into three-dimensional and allusionistic paintings. The period when he was starting in academics, unhappily away from his family, and filled his canvases with chaotic and self-deprecating images. His emphasis on pop culture. And his most recent exploration of literature, particularly Moby Dick and Ahab’s Wife.

I recently had a chance to talk with Solien about his work and his upcoming show.

How’d you become an artist and how would you describe your work?

I started going to art classes and being involved in art departments in Minnesota in the late sixties when there was a confluence of pop art and minimalism and conceptual art practice—very aggressive sculpture and very aggressive painting. I tried to make work at that time that was very contemporary, actively contemporary. So my work had a very experimental attitude. I made extreme paintings, extreme sculpture and dealt with avant-garde ideas. And I consider my work to still be that way. 

What guides your choice of subject matter?

My work has been autobiographical for about thirty years. I look at life experiences … and sometimes I use certain characters to represent myself or to represent others. I show moments of lacking courage or moments of challenging religious convictions or family balance topics.

The figures I use in my works are sometimes congested or fractured. Sometimes they come from pop culture sources or my own imagination. I weave them together to suggest psychological conflict.

What attracts you to surrealism or showing your own vision of the world around you?

As a kid, I was confronted with Picasso and Salvador Dali. By the time I was eight or nine years old, those were the people I looked to as artists. They brought very strong suggestive content to art making. I like works of art and my own works to reflect the subjectivity of its maker.

Your work is shown around the country. What does it mean to be a Midwestern artist?

That’s a complex idea. Initially, when I started to show work in the eighties in New York, Midwestern artists were know as parochial regionalist artists. I think I was looked at as a bit of an exotic, as eccentric. European artists whose ideas were similar to mine were also beginning to show work in New York. I was wrapped up by many writers with them.

Right now, I think being a Midwestern artist is neither an advantage or disadvantage. It’s just the nature of one’s work, whether it’s compelling to a dealer. It’s really a global art market now.

What do you hope people get from seeing your show at MMoCA?

I hope that they’re entertained and provoked. I’m just not in the entertainment business or in the business of providing joy to the viewer. I think life is a complex and difficult process and filled with dark moments and light moments. I’m a fatalist and happen to focus on the dark moments. I hope to engage them and seduce them into entering the inner dialogue I’m in.

COMING UP: A few events and performances to check out this week.

Madison theater packs a powerful punch this week, with the Madison Theatre Guild presenting The Laramie Project, about slain gay Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, through April 26 and University Theatre taking on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.

Christopher Taylor of the UW School of Music continues his Beethoven Piano Sonata Series Wednesday through Friday at Mills Hall, while UW’s Varsity Band performs those same evenings at the Kohl Center. Pianist Ann-Marie McDermott headlines the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s Friday Masterworks performance, and the Canadian indi rockers The New Pornographers take over the Orpheum Theatre Monday night.

Artists Sevki Kuzay and Wilfred illustrate the breadth of abstract painting in a show of new works this month at Fanny Garver Gallery

Get your nature fix—check out the wildflowers and watch the moon rise—at the Arboretum Night Walk Saturday evening. And last, but certainly not least, the Dane County Farmers’ Market moves back to the Capitol Square this Saturday, a sure sign that spring is officially here.

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