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T.L. Solien explores the fragmentation of color and consciousness in “Along The Way”

The exhibit is up at Tandem Press through January 13, 2023.
A photo shows artist T.L. Solien standing in front of his works in a gallery. The works are mosaic-like paintings comprising multicolored fragments that suggest shapes and patterns.
Photo by Hannah Keziah Augustin.

The exhibit is up at Tandem Press through January 13, 2023.

On a cloudy day on Commercial Avenue, I met T.L. Solien at Tandem Press, where his exhibit Along The Way is showing through January 13. The retired UW-Madison art professor had just gotten out of his studio to talk to me about his work, his sweater stained with tiny specks of white paint. Shaped heavily by a variety of schools of art—among these the Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Surrealism, and New Image movements—Solien’s work is rich with color, utterly hypnotic, and borderline psychedelic. And in Along The Way, he blurs the boundaries of genre and memory, inviting us to journey with him through the chaos of it all.

Solien was a student artist in the 1980s, during the decline of abstract impressionism and the rise of pop art. As a result of this, he gravitated toward cohesion and narrative. Most of the early works he produced were self-referential, showcasing concerns with familial issues and the fragility of working as an artist during that time. Then, Solien ventured into academia, where having an academic rationale was inseparable from his artistic process. Because he applied for research funding in order to do his work, Solien felt the need to incorporate thematic issues even when they weren’t appealing. You can get a glimpse of this phase of Solien’s work in the 1998 oil painting “The Seduction Of Innocence,” currently on display at the Chazen Museum of Art. In the piece, a doe-eyed white lamb looks longingly to a blue lamb with horns that’s overlaid with the disfigured face of a man. By putting the two side by side, he symbolically points out the distance between innocence and its loss. 

Now that he has left the institution, he feels more liberated from the expectation to tether his art to research. In his current work, Solien gives himself more permission to gaze outward into the world. He’s been looking back at his artmaking in high school and re-learning the intuition that drove that early work. “There was no concrete thematic issue that drove the work then,” Solien says. “It’s like diving into an unknown without a thesis.” He is more open to exploring new possibilities and looking for forms that might excite him.

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The watercolor and gouache paintings, colored pencil drawings, and prints in Along The Way emerged from a similar headspace. It all began in his figure drawing class, where Solien was exploring new paths of creation before the UW-Madison campus closed down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. At his home studio, he starts sketching without expectation. This is radically different from his usual process, which works toward a theme or rationale. When he began shaking up the process, Solien did not know what to do, and this opened him up to infinite possibilities. He drew random shapes at first and then started filling them in with color. He also starts drawing stone paths from a bird’s-eye view. He became fascinated by these multicolored, intricately patterned paths as a partial byproduct of his relationship with his uncle, who was a stonemason.

Each of the different paths invites the viewer to join in a different journey. The vibrancy and uniqueness of every single one of them induce a vivacity that radiates from the paper onto the space. At the same time, the works in Along The Way possess a restlessness that speaks to the global crisis of 2020. In “To Be Or Not To Be #1” and “To Be Or Not To Be #2,” Solien’s broken fragments encapsulate the existential quandaries that confront all of humanity. Upon first glance, the patterns in “#2” almost form a silhouette of Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker.” It’s one of many shapes that suggest themselves through the colored slabs, depending on individual viewers’ perspectives.

T.L. Solien's, "To Be Or Not To Be #2," 2020, is a mosaic-like artwork comprised of dozens of abstract fragments in different colors, with the suggestion of a path running among them.
T.L. Solien, “To Be Or Not To Be #2,” 2020.

“It is an uncanny moment where something feels possible,” Solien says of the process behind these works. He was inspired by the 13th- and 14-century Italian artist Duccio’s painting “The Road To Emmaus,” which portrays the disciples looking toward the tomb where Christ was buried. The picture shows one of the 26 narrative scenes from the crucifixion of Christ on the reverse side of the Maestà alterpiece. “Only the Gospel of Luke mentions that Christ, dressed like a pilgrim, appeared to the disciples on their way to Emmaus,” Solien says. “Duccio adhered to the Gospel text, reproducing the portrait of an authentic medieval pilgrim: he is distinguished by the knapsack on his shoulder, the pilgrim’s staff, and the typical wide-brimmed hat. As in the lower scene, the composition is directed towards the right, where there is a village on a hill.” In the painting, the paved road appears in two variations: partly with round cobblestones and, below the main gate, with regularly cut stones geometrically laid out.

He draws a parallel between the painting and his own mortality—as the disciples approach the tomb, both they and Solien are inching toward death. Now that he looks back on his life with the wisdom of his years, he sees the ghosts of many memories crossing the path of his existence. The fragmentation of color in his latest work reflects the fragmentation of consciousness, our dual awareness that the beauty of life goes on while death looms over all of us. And yet, the bits of experience that we hold onto in the various seasons of our lives, although not beautiful on their own, create depth, dimension, and dynamism when seen in the context of the larger picture.

The more liberated approach Solien has been using lately also inspired him to challenge what are known as figure-ground relationships. In painting history, the figure-ground relationship is a principle that says that elements are distinguished by what we understand to be a figure, which is the focus of the design, and the ground, which is anything outside of the figure (and is often seen as secondary and less important). Solien rebels against this and removes the demarcation between the object and the background to see what will happen. This play of hierarchy and value changes how the viewer understands the work.

"T.L. Solien, Narrow Path," 2019, is a mosaic-like painting comprised of many different colored fragments. A configuration of pink, red, purple, black, and blue fragments forms a T-like shape in the center of the piece.
T.L. Solien, “Narrow Path,” 2019.

In “Narrow Path,” the figure of the path is only set apart by its color and is otherwise indecipherable in terms of its geometric elements. It cannot be said if the path is in the foreground or at the background, as Solien plays with the viewer’s depth perception. Meanwhile, in “Egyptian Quaker,” he creates a figure that blends into the background. Its indistinguishable quality creates a kind of osmosis and transference among the elements in the piece. This reflects the somber state of the world and the connectedness of all things, the inseparability of human figures and the world that they inhabit. The fragments of the paintings are both separate and united, speaking to one another.

T.L. Solien, "Egyptian Quaker," 2020, is a mosaic-like painting comprised of dozens of colored fragments. The fragments suggest the shape of a human figure wearing a broad-brimmed hat.
T.L. Solien, “Egyptian Quaker,” 2020.

These pieces challenge us to gaze outward into the world. Solien made many of them in 2020, during a global health crisis, the Trump presidency, and the resurgence of white supremacy and militant nationalism. These things are unnatural and unwanted, and Solien’s compelling visual journal captures the uncertainty and anxiety of living through them. This work is jittery, intoxicating, and deeply compelling. Along The Way is one artist’s attempt to step out of their identity to make sense of the world in a beautiful, fragmented way. To make sense of it, one must take a long hard look at the art, at life, and at the one who does the looking. 

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