Some find T.L. Solien's work too dark, too troubling. I am not one of them. Show me a painting of a thirty-something Jesus Christ nailed to a cross -- now that is dark. Rather, the former Minneapolis artist's work is complicated and difficult to decipher. With a psychological uneasiness it explores the complex issues of love, marriage, family, religion, loss, death, memory and sexuality -- for starters. That the work is personal, allegorical and autobiographical becomes obvious.
To tell his stories, Solien has typically exploited a graphic, figurative style that locks horns with a forceful abstraction. Now a professor of art at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he formally reconciles the two modes by constructing edge-to-edge narrative compositions overflowing with images, shapes and forms aggressively splayed across empty grounds that are compelling, even powerful.
His work in the new show "Bogusville," at Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis through Nov. 20, is no different. Created over the past five years, the four large oil-on-canvas paintings and four collaged works on paper project a psychological edginess, magnified by Solien's choice of one-off, high-keyed colors. Although always expanding, his personal iconography still includes several familiar protagonists: the clown, the grim reaper, the human skull, crowns, windows and a cache of floating orbs and abstract shapes. Art-historical nods to Salvador Dali, Jean Dubuffet and others make guest appearances.
Although stylistically in step with his 40-year aesthetic practice, Solien's current body of work was inspired by "all things 19th century" in American culture: from westward expansion and the myth of the stoic, self-reliant individual, to natural disasters and the 19th-century canon of American literature. Even the exhibition title, "Bogusville," is rooted in 19th-century American events. It refers to misinformation provided by the encroaching railroad to potential late-19th-century land speculators, leaving them economically high and dry near the Fargo-Moorhead area, Solien's native environs.
In particular he was influenced by Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," finding "comparisons between the self-centered compulsiveness of Melville's antagonist, Ahab, and the often destructiveness of an artist's commitment to their studio practice." This "Melvillian" focus expanded to include the relationship between Ahab and his wife, and her survival after his demise. Could his own personal narrative metaphorically parallel Ahab's? Continuing the investigation, he read Sena Naslund's "Ahab's Wife: or, The Stargazer."
These 19th-century references seep into Solien's work in not so quiet but oblique ways. In "Boy's Life" a cluttered interior includes a black cutout silhouette, suggestive of not only 19th-century genteel practices of paper cutting, but also reminiscent of the artist's own profile. Stacks of books on a dresser are countered by an image of Abraham Lincoln with bright red lips. Suspended in the airless space is a veil of abstract forms.
In "Night," a female cartoon-like figure in a nurse's cap lies in bed reading a book with a Don Quixote figure on horseback trotting up the bed covers, a skull by her head. Is this Ahab's widow, waiting for his return? In "Her Easel: Pelican Lake," a pink-robed, female clown-faced figure wearing black shoes with buckles sits at an easel painting in the woods. Is this Ahab's widow? Or Solien's wife at their former Pelican Rapids home? In "Bleachers" and "Sanitarium," two compelling collages -- one of a horse race, the other of a balconied building with ghost-like figures -- small, hoop-skirted female figures take on narrative significance.
It's never clear with Solien's work. Nor is it easy. Little is self-evident. And it can be difficult. At its most fundamental level, his practice is rooted in storytelling. Associative, it keeps us asking questions. More important, it allows us to create our own narratives, independent or parallel to his. After all, we all have stories. And that's just how it should be.