A new abstract works by painter T. L. Solien are currently on view at ArtStart in downtown Rhinelander. Solien is an artist of some reputation whose works are in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tate in London and the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. In observing visitors to the gallery over the past two months I have noted many different reactions to his work.
Some were intrigued by the color and the somewhat macabre figures in Solien’s paintings. Children, in particular, seem fascinated with his work. Others were disturbed by some of the dark imagery, and still others wanted to know more about what inspired the paintings. To me the paintings create an expression of chaos, which gives me a feeling that something’s a bit off in his/our world. All of these reactions to Solien’s work have merit.
The confusion, fascination and in some cases uneasiness that many feel in response to his work is the exact reaction Solien is looking for. He says he is interested in engaging the viewer’s imagination. “I want them to think about what is possibly going on, “ he stated at a recent Artist Talk during the ArtStart opening.
What Solien is doing is extending an invitation to open our minds, hearts and imaginations to abstract art-to give it a chance. The great thing about spending some time with art is that it helps teach us how to process abstract concepts. If we look at a painting and really ask ourselves, “Why does this painting make me feel this way?” or “Why do I interpret the color red as anger?”, it can give us some amazing insights into how our brains work.
Abstract art has been around since we were cavemen and cavewomen—the earliest known works date back 70,000 years. In that sense, there is nothing new or radical in modern abstract art as we know it. All cultures, from ancient to modern times, have a form of abstract art. Just think of African block-print cloths, intricate Tibetan beadwork, Navajo blankets, Islamic geometric designs—just to name a few. These cultures have been producing their abstract artworks for centuries, before Western art finally began producing its own version.
When I once visited an exhibition of Picasso’s work years ago, the gallery tour guide likened viewing abstract art to listening to music. When you listen to music, or birdsong, you don’t try to hold on to the notes – you let them wash over you. “Let your eyes wander over the artwork the way the notes of a symphony or your favorite band wash over you,” she advised. “Let your eyes dance around the piece.” She further recommended taking time to examine the painting’s colors, forms, materials, surface and how they interact with each other.
Getting back to Solien’s work, we do know something of where it comes from. Whenever he embarks on a new series of work he travels through epic topics of American literature, history and culture, including the novel, Moby-Dick and the historic Oregon Trail. Whether imagining the nomadic life of Ahab’s widow or contemplating the restlessness that settled the American West, Solien employs inventive combinations of collage, paint, paper and canvas to explore American myths.
Born in Fargo, North Dakota, and raised across the Red River in Moorhead, Minnesota, Solien is currently Professor of Painting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His new work will be on display at ArtStart through January 17.