Dark Matter: A Profile of Artist T.L. Solien

A window into the world of the work that inspired the cover of our August issue

In Sap, a vibrant, surrealistic painting by artist T.L. Solien, a dark-haired woman with a giant skirt and boot-like hand walks through a crowded space. Certain elements—a chair, a bed, a cross on the wall, a pair of socks hanging from a line—are familiar and comforting. Others create an atmosphere of chaos and give viewers a sinking feeling that something’s a bit off here.

That viewers don’t know exactly what’s going on, and that they might feel uneasy about it, is exactly what Solien wants of his art. “I’m interested in engaging the viewer’s imagination,” says the artist, who’s been professor of painting at UW–Madison since 1997. “I want them to think about what is possibly going on.”

Born in Fargo, North Dakota, and raised across the Red River in Moorhead, Minnesota, Solien grew up shy, introspective and skilled at art. He holds art degrees from Moorhead State University and the University of Nebraska.

In the early 1980s his career took off: Solien was invited to work in Paris, picked up by New York City galleries and asked to participate in the 1983 Whitney Biennial. And his satirical, allegorical, pop-referencing paintings became popular sellers—until the art market crashed in 1990.

Suddenly, the artist, whose work is included in the collections of the National Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., the National Gallery of Australia, the Tate Gallery in London, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, among many others, had to leave his wife and two children at home to take on teaching stints at universities in Ohio, Iowa, Montana and finally Wisconsin.

While his wife has since joined him in Madison, and his children are grown, Solien still draws on the experience in his art. Since 2004, he’s created roughly three hundred works based on ideas of separation, seclusion and obsession raised in Moby Dick—as told through the characters of Ahab and his wife.

“What really hit home is Ahab’s monomaniacal obsessivity,” he says. “To me, that was a metaphor for an artist working in a studio.” 

Of even deeper interest is Ahab’s wife, whom Solien places in myriad situations and settings, allowing her to confront social, economic and political dynamics. In fact, she’s the centerpiece of Sap, the painting that inspired the cover of this issue of Madison Magazine.

Solien plans to continue and expand the series and is intrigued by where such dark ideas take him.

I play with the tension between beauty and the darker side of the human experience,” Solien says. “No one goes away from my paintings feeling overjoyed. Everyone comes away feeling as troubled as I did when I made them.”

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