ARTFORUM-Online August 2008
T. L. Solien
MADISON MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART227 State StreetMay 17–August 17
Over the past twenty-five years, T. L. Solien has given pictorial form to the mawkishness of human erring. This harrowing and self-deprecating feat is elegantly demonstrated in this survey exhibition, comprising image-laden canvases and a selection of works on paper. Madison-based Solien has become adept at composing impeccable, doleful narratives founded on a basic lexicon of signs, symbols, and tropes that range from the exotic to the mundane. Coloring-book kittens, fish heads, self-portraits, three-eyed ghosts, and Norwegian oxen secure their roles as metaphors in Solien’s disquieting orbit of still lifes, landscapes, and portraiture.
With a breathy visual vocabulary and deft brushwork, Solien integrates graphic elements with passages of painterly zeal and crude trompe l’oeil effects. His reach is best illustrated in Sap, 2006, a large canvas that deservingly occupies the gallery’s entrance wall. Though it unabashedly carries overtones of Donald Baechler’s heavy, leaden contours, as well as of 1980s pastiche painting, Sap is so much more than the sum of its appropriated parts. Generic totems, hanging socks, a reference to a Jean Dubuffet sculpture, a crucifix, and a whale-shaped club dangling from a mechanical female doll anoint a warm interior space that is familiar yet imaginary. With the mark of a good storyteller, Solien pulls viewers into his simultaneously naive and bookish pictures by commingling bits of lowbrow imagery with literary associations. Teaming forlorn narratives with Solien’s painting conceit, “Myths & Monsters” is a dark existential ride.
— Michelle Grabner
T. L. Solien, the Re-Enactor
For more than thirty years, T. L. Solien has raked his psyche over the coals, probing and prodding his role as an American citizen, husband, artist, and father in expressive paintings and collages that are at once intriguingly strange, weirdly beautiful, unsettlingly crude, meticulously composed, and soberly funny. Including referents beyond his immediate purview and composing in a variety of keys, he invites viewers to put together their own interpretations of his twisted allegories. Solien has provided wide-ranging contexts for his visual mélanges, incorporating references to Tex Avery, Chardin, the Wizard of Oz, Whistler, nineteenth-century silhouettes, Winslow Homer, the Campbell’s soup kids, Jean Dubuffet, Miró, and folk and children’s art. While deeply personal, his art speaks of universal anxieties, comforts, and phobias. A free-wheeling anthropomorphism imbues all his depicted objects with desires and motives. He is an egalitarian animist, open to the potentially hurt feelings of clouds and suitcases. Willfully crude collage elements—often cut-out dollops of color—underline a sense of the handmade. He prefers a flat picture plane without foregrounding, stating that he appreciates the tension created by the “collision between pathetic materials and loaded content.”1 Rarely employing illusionism, he keeps his process close to the bone so that the viewer can more easily track his thought.
Solien’s deeply intellectual works are hard-won products of his assimilation of art and literary history. Adult and strange in the mode of paintings by, say, Jim Nutt, Nicole Eisenman, or Lari Pittman, they seem intended for sympathetic, informed viewers. His presentation is theatrical, usually consisting of a stage-set-like tableau on which are scattered loosely symbolic characters and props. His crudely rendered, kabuki-like figures reveal few emotions behind their exaggerated red lips, button noses, and clown makeup. Featured in starring and secondary roles, bits of detritus are stand-ins for disparate insecurities, further dramatizing Solien’s existential doubts. As Robert Cozzolino stated, “The paintings exorcise spirits inside him; the familiar and deceptively sweet imagery he appropriates from pop culture interrogates viewer and artist with questions of mortality and morality.”2 Solien’s series of fractured self-portraits (1993–99) are masks reflecting a host of disturbed personae. In addition to portraits, he has created many landscapes or still lifes, set in open plains and living rooms that seem undoubtedly Midwestern. Firmly rooted in rural Minnesota and Wisconsin, Solien addresses pointedly American themes of lost innocence, social responsibility, and conflicted individualism. For recent subjects set in the nineteenth century, he has provided an extensive reading list of historical and fictional accounts of westward expansion and natural disasters. Ambitious in a way that most contemporary art is not, his work speaks of the Big Picture.
Since around 1970 (the year Philip Guston unveiled his shocking shift from abstract expressionism to crudely rendered figurative paintings), many of the best American figurative artists have tempered their serious content with humor. Robert Colescott, Peter Saul, and Llyn Foulkes, for example, have regularly used comic book conventions and exaggerated imagery to explore their profound discomfort with the standards and values of mainstream society. Saul’s frequent dismantling of the art world and his lampooning of the falsely elevated status of the artist in modern culture are engineered through a cartoon drawing style, what he calls “the modern way to draw—any other style is copying from the last century.”3 For these artists the assumption of styles and images familiar from mass culture offers a more direct pipeline to the culture at large. Outlandish imagery and a free-wheeling surrealist approach have proved more effective than self-righteous critique. An ironic stance toward cartoon caricature heightens the impact of their message.
Following this maverick tradition, Solien’s bricolage style features acrobatic visual gambits slipping and tumbling in comic pratfalls. In the vein of the elaborate stunts orchestrated by Buster Keaton or Rube Goldberg, his compositions are skillfully jerry-built machines, assembled from make-do bits and pieces. Solien might throw anything into his paintings. In The Great Skate (2004), based on a whimsical and strange eighteenth-century still life by Chardin, Solien activates an odd array of stuff that includes an inquisitive cartoon cat with glued-on googly-eyes, several blobs and lozenge shapes, a stack of books, a dense cluster of flying letters, and a chair draped with fluffy fabrics. Disconcertingly weird, his not-so-still lifes are settings for melancholic daydreams, reflecting the puzzling messiness of everyday life.
This dreamlike state pervades Solien’s work. His ongoing series of otherworldly collage paintings inspired by Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick spins off from his reflections on the novel, allowing incidents and details from this classic narrative to interact with personal memories and feelings. Solien’s penchants for the funny and awkward have been surprisingly nurtured by Melville’s epic, whose heavyweight drama is repeatedly alleviated by comic relief.4 Throughout the book’s seven hundred pages, Melville includes comic incidents, puns, and asides that keep the epic narrative afloat. As in Shakespeare’s tragedies, humorous interludes are ironic asides, temporarily interrupting the inexorability of the tragic denouement. Melville’s love of odd detail—evident in his exhaustive inclusion of seemingly every technical and metaphorical aspect of whaling—also suits Solien’s inclusive nature. But unlike other modern and contemporary projects that seek to emulate the energy and power of the novel, Solien’s art uses Melville’s tale only as a springboard for personal reflection.5 His paintings aren’t so much an homage as a quirky, intimate take on the book’s tragic subtext and how that relates to Solien’s life, occupation, and marriage.
If paintings can be about something, why not about an artist’s personal response to a great book? We read literature and look at pictures to expand our consciousness and broaden our perspectives, finding insights to impulses and emotions in fictive places, situations, dialogue, and images. As we read or look, sometimes minor details and incidents hit home, sparking reflections and afterimages long after we’ve put down the volume or left the gallery. Despite our attention to plot lines, composition, and character development, small details—the color of a bathroom, a puzzled smile, a forgotten key—may be what stick with us and prompt changes. Like dreams, stories and paintings shade the everyday. In the egalitarian realm of consciousness, fictive particulars are as potent as those of reality. Given the structuring, rationalizing conventions of art and literature, it could be said that they have a more powerful force than the often inscrutable facts and implausible actions that surround us. The made-up is realer than the real.
In S/Z, Roland Barthes’s multifaceted 1970 reading of Balzac’s short story “Sarrasine,” certain details prompt Barthes to respond on social, psychological, cultural, and deeply personal levels. This analysis famously helped decenter strictly textual and interpretative literary investigations, opening the door to a wide panoply of reader responses and speculations. Yet although subsequent deconstructions of literary texts and theories about the “death of the author” may have eroded faith in the sanctity of fictional texts, nothing has obviated the way that literary incidents and details permeate memory and consciousness, melding and mixing with our sense of identity and individuality. We are what we’ve read.
Drawing on this mix of impulses, Solien’s works spun from his reading of Moby-Dick conform to the methodology of proto-postmodernist literary pioneers such as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Pound’s The Cantos and Williams’s Paterson are epic poems constructed from literary, historical, and autobiographical particularities. Like those poets, Solien treats even minor events from his own life as mythic occurrences. His consideration of classic American themes relates also to the art of midcentury painters such as Jacob Lawrence, Honoré Sharrer, and Ben Shahn, who often plundered mythic events in American history and literature for subject matter. Other contemporary artists have mythologized incidents from their personal lives: Georganne Deen’s harrowing paintings about her mother, Thomas Woodruff’s series responding to the AIDS pandemic, and Tom Knechtel’s fantastical tableaux based on folktales effectively mix myth and personal history. But Solien’s relationship to Moby-Dick seems surprisingly complex and personal.
Moby-Dick is a strange behemoth, a whopping tale of darkness embodied in the symbol of the white killer whale. Written in 1851 when the imperialist notion of America’s “Manifest Destiny” was in full swing, the novel has been interpreted as a kind of cautionary tale about the illusions of power. Captain Ahab’s self-destructive desire to control a force wildly bigger than himself seems emblematic of deep psychological impulses fostered by a particularly masculine form of hubris. As Melville makes clear, Ahab’s idée fixe is fueled by a self-willed and self-destructive Faustian compact. His desire to kill the white whale festers and grows, consuming the energies and lives of all those around him. The obsessive quest ignores social responsibility and concern for others, casting its hero into manic madness. D. H. Lawrence aptly described the novel as recording “the extreme transactions of the isolated, far-driven soul, the soul which is now alone, without any real human contact.”6
Certain postwar painters and sculptors identified Ahab’s quest with their struggle to reinvigorate art after World War II. Harold Rosenberg asserted that “the American vanguard painter took to the white expanse of the canvas as Melville’s Ishmael took to the sea.”7 Jackson Pollock, Seymour Lipton, Theodore Roszak, Paul Jenkins, William Baziotes, Sam Francis, and Theodoros Stamos all titled or dedicated works to the novel.8 Clement Greenberg found that Pollock’s muddiness of color was the “equivalent . . . of that American chiaroscuro which dominated Melville, Hawthorne, [and] Poe.”9 Commenting on how the novel had been espoused by her generation, Dore Ashton wrote, “The critics who turned back to Melville were justified . . . His wonder and despair of the human condition . . . [and] . . . the notion of art as a way of probing for answers to the riddle of the cosmos [are] the view of art that still dominates American painting.”10
In the late 1970s, in graduate school at the University of Nebraska, Solien was instilled with that kind of intense ambition for painting by his teacher Richard Trickey, who had been a friend of Mark Tobey. But by then abstract expressionism had become a house style, considered by many a too-easy conveyor of inner struggles and psychological depth. Like others of his generation, Solien eventually settled on figurative imagery as a fresh direction. But while 1980s “Pictures” artists like Richard Prince and David Salle famously turned away from psychological insight in order to critique mass media and consumerist society, Solien stayed true to the motivating intentions of abstract expressionism. Although the referential and metahistorical aspects of his practice during the past two decades have been in line with postmodernist ideas, the introspective nature of his work has continued in the tradition of the postwar artists.
Moby-Dick has provided a loose metaphorical structure for Solien to examine the ramifications of his role as an artist. He spoke of his first reading of the novel: “What really hit home is Ahab’s monomaniacal obsessivity. To me, that was a metaphor for an artist working in a studio.”11 Several of Solien’s Moby-Dick paintings represent the destructive effect on his life and marriage caused by the isolation and self-absorption of his career (Night Nurse, Reading with Laundry, Less, Sap, Long Branch). He is aware, however, that while his difficulties and ambitions as an artist might be as ineluctable as those of Ahab, his job is obviously less perilous. Solien addresses this irony through his cartoonish style and comic tone, thus sharpening the critique.
The real hero of the Moby-Dick paintings is Ahab’s wife, used as a lens through which to view the illusions and pretentions of the artist/Ahab. Barely mentioned by Melville, the character of the wife has been mythologized by contemporary novelist Sena Jeter Naslund in a picaresque novel chronicling her heroine’s series of wild adventures before and after Ahab’s death. In several paintings, Solien follows Naslund’s lead, presenting the wife as anticipating and mourning the loss of Ahab (Less, Half Mourning) and moving on.12 Elaborating further on the character himself, he depicts her as an alternative artist figure, one more actively engaged in “post studio” activities like plein air painting (Her Easel Pelican Lake), gardening (The Greenhouse, The Cranberry Harvest), photography (The Photographers), and furniture decoration (Widows Painting Furniture). As he explains:
I am interested in establishing the protagonist in linear motion, affected by documented accounts of the westward expansion history, and in the position of “abandoning” the withered life as the widow of a wealthy ship captain in favor of entertaining her spirit of renewal and adventure.13
Solien’s images don’t simply track the wife’s liberating journey. As he delved into historical accounts of the period, he expanded the perimeters of his sources, including works referring to the turn-of-the-century cholera epidemic (C-Train), the transcontinental railroad (Standard Time), the 1888 Midwestern blizzard (Three Sons Thaw, The Children's Blizzard), Dust Bowl immigration (The Small Depression), and the Great Hinckley Fire (Waterlilies). Processing incidents of Americana through the subjective filter of his consciousness, he develops a new kind of history painting, one reflecting America’s darker heritage.
In artist’s notes and remarks in interviews, Solien reveals that even minor objects in the paintings are weighty with personal meaning. Usually the viewer can puzzle out their significance, conveyed by Solien’s attention to details and acute sense of the uncanny. Disturbing personal revelations are part of the mix; he associates Three Sons Thaw and HDSTNVHCL with his stillborn child and Half Mourning and The Cranberry Harvest with the death of a colleague.14 As he puts it, the “consciously clumsy” elements of the works help “dissipate the personally cathartic within the appearance of play and entertainment.”15
The play is purposeful. Midway through Moby-Dick, the narrator Ishmael focuses on the existential humor that keeps the narrative afloat:
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. . . . There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.16
Behind the practical joke is Ahab’s death wish and Melville’s ineffable symbol of darkness. The open-ended, elliptical nature of what Ahab’s obsession represents has made Moby-Dick a profound examination of the pathology at the heart of this country. Rooted in Puritanical notions of good and evil, the “problem” of America stems from its status as a democratic republic born out of land-grabbing, genocide, and slavery. Solien’s work seems permeated by a similar rectitude founded on critique of the imperialism and unquestioned idealism that continue to stymie America’s spiritual and psychological growth. Finding in his own role as an artist an obsessive arrogance analogous to that of Ahab, Solien brings this questioning home.
Re-enactor features a bespectacled figure with false beard and clown nose posing as a Civil War soldier. Solien’s notes relate his fantasy of participating in a battle reenactment, conjuring the experience of a great-grandfather who fought for the Union. The figure’s slim shoulders and small head suggest that the subject is a woman, thus obliquely referring to Ahab’s wife’s adventure as a cross-dressing cabin boy in Naslund’s narrative. Solien manages to pierce through the disguise with the sole indicator of the subject’s personality: her eyes. Her lucid, penetrating gaze transcends the stiff, cut-out forms and comic masquerade. Like this plaintive wannabe, T. L. Solien has looked deep within the guises of art history, literature, personal biography, and human psychology to find a fresh way to unveil the past and speak to the present. A masterful re-enactor, he conflates his own life with America’s past and makes his vision our own.
1. Conversation with the artist, October 19, 2012.
2. Robert Cozzolino, “The Naive and the Profane,” The DailyPage.com, Madison, Wisconsin, March 7, 2003.
3. Unpublished recorded interview with Saul by Victoria Lautman, WBEZ, Chicago, circa 1996.
4. Joseph Jones, “Humor in Moby Dick,” Studies in English (University of Texas Press) 25 (1945–46): 51–71.
5. For an exhaustive survey of works derived from Moby-Dick by artists ranging from Rockwell Kent to Frank Stella, see Elizabeth A. Schultz, “Unpainted to the Last”: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995).
6. D. H. Lawrence, “Herman Melville’s Moby Dick,” in Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 147.
7. Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” Art News 55, no. 5 (September 1952): 48.
8. See Evan R. Firestone, “Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ and the Abstract Expressionists,” Arts 54 (1980): 120–24. The other quotations in this paragraph were cited by Firestone.
9. Clement Greenberg, The Nation 157, no. 22 (November 27, 1943): 621.
10. Dore Ashton, The Unknown Shore: A View of Contemporary Art (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962), 65.
11. Katie Vaughn, “Dark Matter: A Profile of Artist T. L. Solien,” Madison Magazine (August 2012).
12. Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab’s Wife; or, The Star-Gazer (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1999).
13. T. L. Solien, “Ahab’s Wife and the Westward Expansion,” artist’s grant application, University of Wisconsin, n.d.
14. Solien, unpublished notes, 2012.
15. Conversation with the artist, October 19, 2012.
16. Chapter 49, “The Hyena,” in Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.
Michael Duncan is a freelance writer and curator in Los Angeles. He has been a corresponding editor for Art in America since 1993 and also writes for Artforum, Aperture, Bookforum, LA Weekly, and New Art Examiner.
Moby-Dick, Ahab’s Wife, and “the All-Grasping Western World” in T. L. Solien’s
Toward the Setting Sun
A reading of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in 2003 prompted T. L. Solien to begin the series of collages and paintings that ten years later became the exhibition Toward the Setting Sun at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota. During the course of these years, Solien’s concept for the series expanded and deepened. The first iteration of this exhibition in 2006, titled Insulatus, focused on a series of collages specifically related to Moby-Dick.1 Subsequently the works expanded and came collectively to be called To the West, a title suggesting more fully and explicitly Solien’s concerns and the shifting loci of his interests in this narrative series. In an interview in 2012, the artist admitted that he had “never pursued a topic as long as he had this one,”2 the topic being his evolving perception of the relationship of Melville’s Moby-Dick and Sena Jeter Naslund’s popular novel Ahab’s Wife to the history of westward expansionism. Understanding this connection through a series of collages and paintings became an obsession for him, very much as the White Whale was for Ahab. My concern in this essay will be to elucidate not only how Moby-Dick provides the trajectory for Solien’s art in Toward the Setting Sun but also how he brings his own multilayered, tragicomic aesthetic to create a visual response to Moby-Dick that differs from that of other Moby-Dick–inspired artists.
Solien explains that his initial understanding of Moby-Dick became complicated by his reading of Naslund’s novel Ahab’s Wife, which led him to consider the difficulties (economic, social, psychological) for New England women left alone with their children on shore for many years while their husbands were at sea, hunting whales. Naslund’s narrative helped him to realize that these women, adventurous, courageous, fully capable of living by themselves or engaging in their own explorations, might well have been otherwise occupied than endlessly waiting for and on their husbands. Contemplation of his own personal life and an intensified interest in American history further enriched the narrative themes Solien was beginning to develop in his works inspired by both Moby-Dick and Ahab’s Wife. On the one hand, he recognized that his own intense dedication to an artistic career had alienated him from his wife and children, just as Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick had led to his isolation from his community and family. On the other hand, American history led Solien to an awareness of the persistent exploitation of land and peoples in the United States in the interests of profit. The paintings in Toward the Setting Sun were initially prompted by Moby-Dick, a novel with few women characters, but Solien found himself increasingly relating Ahab’s monomaniacal quest for the White Whale to the impact of his personal quest for artistic achievement on his own wife and family. Solien came to see that a cultural endorsement of male domination over women could be related to the national quest for domination over western lands and people. While drawing on literary and historical sources, Solien’s work in Toward the Setting Sun is also intensely personalized and deeply felt.
Solien brings an exceptional range of antecedents—aesthetic, literary, historical, cultural, psychological, and personal—to his work, thereby creating his own aesthetic: a fusion of the abstract and symbolic with the realistic and narrative, the tragic and the comic. It is not surprising to learn that Solien takes Picasso as his most important mentor, not only because of Picasso’s staggering innovations in establishing new forms in art but also because he drew repeatedly for inspiration from historical and contemporary images as well as his own life. Toward the Setting Sun is littered with allusive images from Solien’s life and from art history, which, in being repeated in his work, become iconic. Comic-book images juxtaposed with allusions to nineteenth-century American painters such as Winslow Homer and James Abbott McNeill Whistler consistently destabilize the viewer, inviting her to look more closely. Solien’s dependency on nervous lines, spatial distortions, miscellaneous objects, cutout forms, and off-beat colors gives his paintings an agitated vitality.
Since the 1930s, Moby-Dick has been the source for numerous paintings, illustrations, sculptures, installations, and cartoons in increasingly diverse styles.3
The challenge of painting a whale definitively (that which Melville seeks to do in his novel even while recognizing that it “must remain unpainted to the last”)4 might well be the catalyst for this ongoing and spectacular creative response to Moby-Dick. In discussing the works in Toward the Setting Sun, Solien explicitly dissociates them from Rockwell Kent’s realistic and iconic Moby-Dick illustrations and from the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollock. Kent’s work, he claims, is “too journalistic.” Solien’s relationship with abstractionism is more complex. He acknowledges his familiarity with Moby-Dick’s Chapter 34, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” regarded by many readers as epitomizing Melville’s engagement with philosophy, psychology, and theology and inspiring several abstract expressionists, including Pollock, Paul Jenkins, Sam Francis, and Frank Stella, to visualize their response in paintings or sculpture. Believing Melville comes to no conclusion in “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Solien explains that his interest in Moby-Dick is not with “mystery and the unknown, not with the unanswerable.” He asserts that his intention instead is to reflect on “the ethical, the life we are living now.” By complementing his literary allusions with references to his own personal history and to American history and by generating his own vocabulary of abstract and graphic forms in Toward the Setting Sun, T. L. Solien shapes and colors his response to the material and the transcendent, the intellectual and the emotional, the comic and the tragic in “the life we are living now.”
Solien’s Moby-Dick Narrative
More illustrated editions exist of Moby-Dick in the United States and globally than of any other American literary work. Given that Melville’s now classic novel was largely ignored when it was first published in 1851, it is not surprising that it was not illustrated until the end of the nineteenth century, despite the fact that the nineteenth century was the heyday for illustrated editions.5 Since the Melville Revival of the late 1920s, following the discovery of the text for Billy Budd in a Melville family bread box and a resurgence of interest in Melville’s writing, many of his books—most especially Moby-Dick—have been illustrated repeatedly, in full-length editions, abridged editions, children’s books, and comic books. A new children’s edition with illustrations by Andrew Glass was most recently published in 2012.6 Distinguished American illustrators of Moby-Dick include Mead Schaeffer, Rockwell Kent, Boardman Robinson, LeRoy Nieman, and Bill Sienkiewicz. Numerous artists in the United States and abroad have created single, independent paintings or sculptures inspired by Moby-Dick, and many others, working in realistic or abstract modes, have recognized the compelling nature of Melville’s narrative and generated visual narratives that stand independent of the text. Stella’s Moby-Dick series includes a monumental, dynamic, many-layered sculptural piece for each of the novel’s 135 chapters, thereby creating an immense and powerful visual narrative.7 Recently Matt Kish produced a stunning drawing for each of the 552 pages in the 1990 Signet edition of Moby-Dick.8
Collectively, Solien’s Moby-Dick–inspired, mixed-media collages on paper, each thirty by thirty-six inches and created in 2005 and 2006,9 form a compelling visual narrative related to Ishmael’s and Ahab’s whaling experiences, which then becomes the springboard for developing images related to Ahab’s wife and to ideas of American expansionism in later paintings in Toward the Setting Sun. Through Melville’s characters Solien reflects on “the ethical, the life we are living now.” Rather than emphasizing the full spectrum of the novel’s characters and the White Whale, Solien directs his attention toward Ishmael and Ahab. Focusing his Moby-Dick lens on these two, he perceives in Ishmael the psychologically insecure youth, embarked on discovering life’s meanings, and in Ahab the obsessed captain, whose absolute ideology leads to his extreme isolation. Solien is not alone among artists in his interest in these signature characters: this allegorical interpretation of Melville’s characters has been projected by Rockwell Kent, all Moby-Dick movies, most comic books and children’s adaptations, and the highly acclaimed 2010 Moby-Dick opera, with a score by Jake Heggie and libretto by Gene Scheer.
Solien’s representations of Ishmael and Ahab move well beyond allegory to suggest complex psychological and cultural characterizations. Many of Solien’s Moby-Dick–inspired works are drawn from Chapters 1 through 21, take place on land before the doomed Pequod sets sail, and address Ishmael’s condition at the beginning of the novel. Ishmael, who opens Moby-Dick with the memorable line “Call me Ishmael,” does not visually appear in Solien’s works although images in the collages based on early chapters develop an iconography of anxiety, disintegration, and loss, reflecting the feelings of Melville’s narrator. As these images appear in collages representing later chapters, they perpetuate this sense of malaise.
Drawing at random on diverse chapters for his depiction of Ahab, Solien portrays him unlike other artists who project him in his isolation as the embodiment of monomaniacal power. Other Moby-Dick–inspired artists, such as Gilbert Brown Wilson, Claus Hoie, and George Klauba, also reveal Ahab to be multifaceted. Wilson’s images reveal an Ahab capable of loving, Hoie’s a visionary seeker, and Klauba’s a deeply tormented birdlike man. Sharing in the Ishmaelian iconography of anxiety, disintegration, and loss, Solien’s Ahab appears dazed, timorous, and desolated. In discussing the relationship of his art to Moby-Dick and to the characters of Ishmael and Ahab, Solien repeatedly recognizes a correlation between their lives and his own: he and Ishmael are both haunted by the passing of time, the inevitability of death, and the confusion of materiality and spirituality while he and Ahab pursue their visions obsessively with immense loss—Ahab in seeking Moby Dick’s death, Solien in seeking to become an artist.
Other artists have represented the range of characters in Moby-Dick, especially Queequeg, the Polynesian harpooner, and increasingly the African American characters, but Solien depicts them only in selected images. Other artists devoted themselves to visual interpretations of the White Whale (Norman Ives, Robert Del Tredici, Robert McCauley, Mark Milloff, and Richard Ellis, for example); given Solien’s interest in the psychological, cultural, and historical rather than the philosophical, cosmic, environmental, and scientific, the White Whale that embodies the “mystery and the unknown” is largely absent in his work. When a cetological image does appear in his collages, it tends to evoke amusement.
Solien’s collages, haunted as they are and evoking the tragic dimension in human life, are not without their comic aspects. Ahab’s quest, interpreted by literary critics from the 1930s into the 1960s as heroic, is represented by Solien as savage at worst, bizarre at best, with Ahab at times appearing as a buffoon. The random representations of the White Whale in Solien’s works, as a toy cutout, a childish sketch, or an abstract assemblage, seem to parody “the ungraspable phantom of life” or “one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air” (5, 7)—phrases from the first chapter by which Ishmael anticipates Moby Dick’s awesome appearance at the end of the novel. With his consciously simplified images of Moby Dick, Solien seems to be intentionally spoofing the object of literary critics’ adoration and the subject of numerous illustrations, paintings, and sculptures, to be playfully tweaking the mystic of the unattainable White Whale, possibly suggesting that it has become overinflated.10
Although numerous artists have depicted the exterior of the Spouter Inn in New Bedford, where Ishmael spends the first night of his voyage in Chapter 2, “The Carpet-Bag,” no previous artist uses this scene to create the sense of desolation and ominous foreboding as fully as Solien does in his collage Spouter (Plate X). Devoid of characters, his painting, done primarily in grey and white, foregrounds several personal objects that all seem abandoned near the dock—a small braided rug, a box of envelopes ready for the post, a trunk, an overflowing carpetbag.11 Acknowledging that he is “deeply affected by refuse in piles” (S 16), Solien creates chaotic heaps in many of the collages in Toward the Setting Sun, evoking a pathetic human dependency on material possession.12
A tiny ship is frozen into the background of a snow white sea in Spouter. The hotel, combining a western storefront with one-story outbuildings, dominates the background. “Pragmatically eccentric, from an architectural standpoint,” according to Solien, the inn appears “ghostly and forlorn” (S 2). Melville calls it “a gable-ended old house, one side palsied as it were, and leaning over sadly” (12). It is linked to the viewer by peculiar drainpipes, extended into the foreground and resembling nineteenth-century speaking tubes. Rising from the branches of the patched-together inn is a single, tall chimney, resembling, as Solien comments, one from a crematorium. It sends up oddly shaped black blobs of smoke; here they are blank comic-book speech bubbles, offering no information. A full moon hovers in a grey sky, evoking either dawn or dusk. Solien’s Spouter thus becomes a synecdoche, standing in for the feelings of isolation, depression, purposelessness, and suicide that Ishmael expresses at the beginning of his voyage.
Scholars interested in Melville’s reflections on art often note Ishmael’s encounter, on entering the Spouter Inn, with the “boggy, soggy, squitchy picture,” a painting with “a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvelous painting meant” (MD 12–13). In Moby-Dick, Ishmael becomes engaged, first, with interpreting this picture, then with interpreting Queequeg’s tattoos, and increasingly with interpreting all whales, but especially Moby Dick. Few artists attempt to represent the picture that so intrigued Ishmael at the beginning of his journey.13 Solien not only creates an unusual representation of the Spouter Inn painting in his work Blue Poles but also explicitly determines to differentiate it from the other works in this series: “It was my intention to try to make an image that did not present itself in a way similar to all other images from this body of work” (S 4).
Solien’s Blue Poles (Plate X) mocks abstract expressionism in general and abstract interpretations of Moby-Dick particularly. In his discussion of this collage, he references both J. M. W. Turner’s paintings14 and Pollock’s 1952 painting Blue Poles, after which he named his own work and which he speculates was “inspired by Melville’s description of the mystery of romantic abstraction” (S 4). Although there is no evidence that Pollock referenced Moby-Dick per se in his Blue Poles, it is likely that Melville’s novel was on his mind when he titled his 1943 work (Blue (Moby Dick)). With a conscious pictoriality, created by its broad frame and its lack of any realistic shapes, Solien’s Blue Poles stands apart from his other collages. Centered in the middle of the collage is a cutout of a squash-like whale,15 perhaps alluding to Ishmael’s own recognition of a whale leaping over a ship in the center of the Spouter painting, but certainly parodying representations of Moby Dick as mystical, scientific, or humanized. The other disparate and overlapping cutouts in the collage have no definitive shapes—some appear as fish, others as leaves. They all seem intentionally aged, mildewed, dusty. In his picture of the picture, Solien determines to subvert a cultural predilection for abstractionism by creating a spoof that he believes is “virtually unreadable,” an image “like a relic of the Abstract Expressionist historical past even though [this past] is, in reality, from the Future, compared to the historical implications of other works in this series” (S 4).
In Shrunken Heads (Plate X), Solien depicts Ishmael, the young Yankee, in bed with Queequeg, the seasoned Polynesian harpooner, a scene frequently appearing in illustrated editions of Moby-Dick and beloved by readers who are heartened by its evocation of deep friendship and the hope it implies for attaining democratic ideals of equality. Yet Solien’s rendering of the friendly pair is more disturbing than comforting. With red smeared on the walls of the bedroom, he evokes the horror of whaling, the bloody “butchering sort of business” (MD 108) for which both men are headed. Solien emphasizes the room’s chill, depicting a threadbare blanket and melting snow and ice seeping through the cracks in the door and floating across the floor. Swinging ominously above the bed are the tattooed heads (rendered as gigantic and each with a full head of black hair) that Queequeg has been peddling about New Bedford. Visually reflecting Solien’s debt to Jean Dubuffet,16 the heads, together with the colorful, totemic, and emphatically phallic bedposts, dominate the bed. Unlike other artists who visually ennoble Queequeg, Solien chooses to sexualize the Polynesian. Although Melville describes Ishmael and Queequeg as becoming “bosom friends” as a result of their bedtime talk, Solien, who shows their “nocturnal conversation as existing in the blackness or transparency of ‘thought bubbles’” (S 5), specifically suggests that they might be discussing the dangers of whaling and the more ponderous subject of death.
Spouter Breakfast (Plate X) focuses on the meal served to the whaling men at the Spouter Inn, a subject based on Chapter 5, “Breakfast,” which infrequently appears in illustrated editions of Moby-Dick and which few artists have undertaken to represent. Solien states his conviction that Melville’s chapter not only evokes for him a Last Supper for the whalers as well as for the whales, who provide the steaks for this meal, but also emphasizes the body’s materiality, its separation from the soul. With no characters in this collage, Solien gives his viewer a still life that includes a roughly drawn cup and torn scraps of paper heaped on a plate, suggesting slabs of multicolored, desiccated meat. In Solien’s view of the whalers’ world, a breakfast plate slides toward the viewer, underscoring life’s instability.
In No Suicides, another image from Ishmael and Queequeg’s early adventures together, Solien links the suicidal tendencies of whalers and artists. This collage references a sign that the innkeeper of The Try-Pots in Nantucket plans to post. Although oblivious to Ishmael’s depression and suicidal proclivities, the innkeeper is affected by the suicide of a previous guest, a whaleman just returned from an unproductive four-month cruise. She now worries that Queequeg will stain her bedsheets and her reputation by killing himself with his harpoon. Solien’s collage, with its phlegm-colored yellow and grey background, conjures a moldy wall, a diseased atmosphere. None of the objects in this room—the pile of massive tomes; the rickety, once elegant table; the heavy kettle, which floats curiously above the sign—expresses vitality; rendered in black, these miscellaneous items appear disconnected, adrift. The sign, with its sardonic imperative, “No Suicides,” has slipped from its frame. A roughly sketched cross and an arched window, which in another context might signify Christian inspiration, offer no illumination. In discussing No Suicides, Solien identifies himself with Ishmael as “a longtime sufferer from chronic depression” and indicates that the painting explicitly alludes to the fact that many artists have tragically been “incapable of surviving their long-term ‘journey’” (S 3).
From the early chapters of Moby-Dick, Solien has also chosen to illuminate the chapel, a scene perhaps better known through film representation than through its artistic depiction.17 The pulpit in Chapter 8 is sturdily built to resemble a ship’s prow, leading Melville to comment, “the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage is complete; and the pulpit is its prow” (MD 40). Pulpit (Plate X), Solien’s collage of Father Mapple delivering his sermon from the pulpit of New Bedford’s Seamen’s Bethel, presents material and spiritual chaos. Acknowledging Melville’s description of the pulpit as “fashioned from the wreckage of former whaling ships” (S 6), Solien concocts his pulpit from a hodgepodge of lumber, the arched window from No Suicides (now turned upside down), strips of tape, and tattered drapery. In the pulpit, along with Mapple (represented as a dignified nineteenth-century clergyman), a black canoe paddle is incongruously placed. Behind his head is a dilapidated sail, spread out like a ghostly scarecrow. Large thumb tacks and post-ems hold the walls of the chapel together. In an arch surrounding Mapple’s head is one of the few allusions to the White Whale in Solien’s collages, a form also constructed from strips of white tape. Although Solien insists this is only “a reference to the architecture of the chapel” (S 6), this awkward arch may also be interpreted as dominating the future of everyone pictured. Below the pulpit stand white slabs resembling the cenotaphs set in the chapel in memory of men who had drowned at sea. Among them, Solien places a rabbit from his previous work, a bonneted woman evoking Ahab’s wife, a diversity of dark silhouettes, and a dramatic representation of Queequeg. The recycled images from previous works in this collage strengthen the connective narrativity of Solien’s series while also exacerbating the material and spiritual chaos.
In Our Things, Solien again focuses on Ishmael’s and Queequeg’s possessions. Based on Chapter 13, “The Wheelbarrow,” Our Things depicts a large red wheelbarrow loaded with Queequeg’s bulky canvas bag and Ishmael’s smaller carpetbag. The overloaded wheelbarrow and the bags indicate the persistence of material chaos as well as the jumbled and diverse baggage humans carry in their psyches. The wheelbarrow contains one of Solien’s black thought balloons, a red mitten on a fishing pole, slabs of meat from Spouter Breakfast, a mirror, a book, and other miscellaneous shapes, while Queequeg’s bag carries an alarm clock, a sock, a roll of paper, a picture frame, and a small teapot. A miscellany of abstract forms and shapes sits alongside the wheelbarrow and bags, including a head of Queequeg and a small portrait bust of George Washington, conveying, as Solien says, “the silly and the innocuous” (S 60).18 As in a barren Giorgio de Chirico cityscape, some of these objects cast strange shadows. Although Solien maintains that Our Things is a reworking of Picasso’s Minotaur Moving House, a gleeful, rambunctious print of the Minotaur pulling a wagon full of his goods and chattel, Solien’s collage is far more ominous, with smokestacks on a distant horizon and a black sun overhead.
The only character from Moby-Dick for whom Solien creates a portrait is Ahab; he follows the tradition of other Moby-Dick artists who select the Pequod’s captain for particular attention.19 The iconic characteristics of Ahab’s face with his intense gaze and his livid scar as well as his body with its whale-bone leg are absent in Solien’s image (Plate X). Solien generically titles his portrait of Ahab He to associate him with masculinity at large. He crosses out his eyes with Xs, the conventional comic-book sign to designate a man who has lost consciousness. The flatness of Solien’s image does not reflect the complexity he contributes to Ahab’s characterization, however. By emphasizing Ahab’s pipe,20 which the captain tosses overboard in Chapter 30, and his hat, which a sea-hawk carries off in Chapter 130, Solien suggests Melville’s nuanced portrait of the Pequod’s captain. By giving up his pipe, Ahab intentionally relinquishes sensuous pleasure and serenity; the loss of his hat to the sea-hawk one hundred chapters later is an omen of his forthcoming death. If other aspects of He mock his power and strength, Solien undercuts the foreboding solemnity and insanity given to Ahab by other Moby-Dick artists by assigning him a rakish beard and a saucy, cutout toupee, which, he says, reminds him of the hairstyle of a character from the children’s television show Little Rascals.
Parodying Whistler’s staid and balanced portrait of the British philosopher Thomas Carlyle and titling it The Leaking Room, Solien mocks the painter, the philosopher, the whaling captain, and the writer in this “‘formal’ portrait of Ahab” (S 11). In the center of this collage, he places a melting snowman wearing a jaunty red bowler. The large brimmed hat, which Whistler shows tilting on Carlyle’s knee, here tilts instead on the snowman’s head, and the coat that covers Carlyle’s knee is replaced by the melting snowman, from which pieces of coal, denoting his face and buttons, are slipping onto the floor. Solien’s leaky Ahab sits upright, dressed in somber black. He is paradoxically the only “stable” element in The Leaking Room, yet Solien explains that “Time collapses in Ahab’s lap. Sogginess compromises all surfaces and objects as Ahab holds his pose” (S 11). Although most nonabstract representations of Ahab show him scrutinizing his maps or gazing intently at the horizon, Solien places him here in a room comparable to that in Shrunken Heads. Water drips from the ceiling and oozes across the floor. In creating The Leaking Room, Solien not only parodies Whistler’s upright philosopher but also seems to have taken a clue from Ahab’s comment to Starbuck: “‘I’m all aleak myself. Aye! leaks in leaks! not only full of leaky casks, but those leaky casks are in a leaky ship’” (MD 474). Despite acknowledging his mortality, Melville’s Ahab continues his pursuit of Moby Dick, even as Solien implies the artist continues to pursue his vision. In The Leaking Room, Solien replaces the paintings neatly hung on the wall in front of Carlyle with small, actual reproductions of four of his own works, asserting that “Ahab and the artist in [his] creative process are synonymous” (S 11).
Although Melville usually describes Ahab on deck, intensely engrossed in watching for Moby Dick’s appearance, he also shows him inside the ship at two tables: presiding imperially over the dining table of the mates and harpooners and pondering the charts spread out on his cabin table. In Captain’s Table (Plate X), Solien conflates these two tables, superimposing Ahab’s personal table on a long dining table. He again connotes this long table, which is set with various beakers, with the Last Supper, sketching a cross over it to clench that association. Ahab’s personal table looms large in the place where Jesus would have been expected to sit. Lying beneath the tables are signs that Solien uses in other images to suggest the ungodly nature of the Pequod’s voyage: a bloody spade for desiccating whales and Ahab’s hat, which is symbolic of his mortality. This table stands on an elaborately designed but unsteady peg leg, by which Solien implies Ahab’s own moral and psychological instability. On the table’s surface is a whimsical sketch of the White Whale that so obsesses him. In Captain’s Table Solien not only signals the overwhelming threat of Ahab’s dominance but also undermines him comically.
Solien’s representation of Pip, the Pequod’s black cabin boy and a castaway in the sea—“in the intense isolation of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity” (MD 414)—is perhaps his most realistic image and certainly his least cluttered. In its stark simplicity, it is heartbreaking. Seldom depicted by earlier Moby-Dick illustrators or artists, Pip has recently been signaled out by George Klauba and Kathleen Piercefield, each of whom devoted a sequence of images to Pip’s narrative in Melville’s novel.21 Although Melville describes the day when Pip is abandoned at sea as being blue and beautiful, Solien casts his collage in nightmarish colors, the sky a bilious yellow and the sea a mottled green. In this “heartless immensity,” Pip turns his “ebon head” (MD 413) while a whale ship rides on the distant horizon in a miasma of grey haze. The unusual spareness of this collage draws attention to the horror of Pip’s abandonment. Solien recognizes that Pip, following his rescue, accesses “his irrational self” (S 18) or, in Melville’s words, “heaven’s sense . . . that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic” (MD 414). Solien thus perceives that Pip gains wisdom similar to that of artists who risk alienation from society in their struggle to achieve a personal vision.22
In the collage titled Omen, in which a sea-hawk flies off with Ahab’s hat, Solien expands on his understanding of Moby-Dick as a narrative exposing the problems of living with depression and the knowledge of death’s inevitability. The sad-eyed bird at the center of Omen, which Solien describes as “dingy, meek, and pathetic,” even comical (S 17), is hardly a sea-hawk. A goose, it seems to be drinking from a cup—whether a cup of water or of hemlock, Solien leaves to the viewer’s reading. He specifically interprets the sea-hawk in Melville’s novel as “an image signifying Death” and his own image of the goose as “the personification of Depression” (S 17). Astonishingly, Solien affixes a pair of small, dainty white wings onto the back of his goose, hinting that this bird could have redemptive possibilities: “the ‘little wings’ . . . keep the condition [of Depression] from being all-consuming . . . a surprising glimmer of health in the corpus of disease” (S 17).
Two of Solien’s collages evoke the conclusion of Moby-Dick. As in other Solien works, through heaps of colorful refuse, layered with images “inspired by Art Historical collisions” (S 16), they expose the accumulated detritus in human lives. In both collages, Solien envisions the debris from the Pequod’s wreck at the novel’s conclusion as “the great shroud of the sea rolls on as it rolled five thousand years ago” (MD 572). Once again, Solien emphasizes an aspect of the scene few other artists have visualized in their attention to more dramatic events—either the White Whale’s destruction of the ship or Ishmael afloat on his life-buoy coffin.23 Among contemporary Moby-Dick artists, only Mark Milloff in his series depicting the concluding events of the novel conveys a comparable sense of the chaos and pressure from multiple, colliding objects. In Flotsam (Plate X), among the floating barrels, bricks, pumpkins, and a picture frame that might have held an image of Ahab’s wife, Solien also imagines a sacrificial lamb and a child’s coffin. The title for the second of these elegiac collages, Masthead (Plate X), comes from Chapter 35, early in the novel, in which Ishmael envisions his own death on the ship.24 With a midden of assorted colorful shapes in the basket of the masthead, Solien reflects on the demise of the entire crew. The bright, largely unidentifiable objects here not only overflow from the masthead but also seem to be drawn downward by heavy streaks of darkness. Solien comments about this image: “I think not to consider it to be an image of a crucifixion would be to miss an aspect of the drawing’s intentions” (S 16). Rising from the debris of the Pequod and of Solien’s artistic life is a gaily banded pole that suggests transcendent possibilities in the midst of desolation.
Solien’s Narrative of Ahab’s Wife
Linking Melville’s nineteenth-century Moby-Dick with Sena Jeter Naslund’s twentieth-century Ahab’s Wife, Solien maintains continuity, creating a dynamic visual experience and an evolving commentary on American society. Many of the works related to Ahab’s Wife were made during the same period as his Moby-Dick–inspired art (2005–6), are the same size, and are also mixed-media collages.25 Pursuing his vision, Solien continued working on his Mrs. Ahab pieces from 2006 into 2011, including several large paintings.26 Whereas his Moby-Dick works reflect on the novel’s male characters (Ishmael, Queequeg, Pip, Ahab), his works evoking Naslund’s principal character, Una Spenser, create a feminist narrative.
Connecting both narratives is Solien’s intensely critical examination of his own life. In the Moby-Dick collages he reflects on being a lone and often traumatized individual as well as an artist, and in the Ahab’s Wife collages and paintings he considers his wife’s life as she is rendered dependent on him but becomes an independent and triumphant individual, courageous, creative, and involved with her own companions. As Naslund, in Stacey D’Erasmo’s words, “is, in the most non-aggressive way, rewriting American history, revising American literature and critiquing traditional masculinity,”27 so is Solien in his collages focusing on Ahab’s wife. Although his collages explicitly honor the plot and characterizations in Ahab’s Wife and reinforce Naslund’s own assertion of intention regarding her novel (“I’m making a statement that there can be an epic story of an American woman that ends in peace and harmony with the universe. . . . This woman can be one who has lived a very full and adventuresome life and has found her own way spiritually”),28 Solien, in his most recent portraits of Ahab’s widow, questions that she has achieved a fully meaningful life.
Having created a formal portrait for Ahab based on Whistler’s portrait of Carlyle in The Leaking Room, Solien creates “portrait partner” for Ahab’s wife based on Whistler’s Mother in his Composition in Black and White (Plate X).29 Composition in Black and White represents Ahab’s “homebound wife” (S 12), static in her position as a nineteenth-century “angel in the house.” Her smiling profile, with clown nose and triangulated eye, immobilizes her in a conventional childlike profile that remains constant in the majority of Solien’s Mrs. Ahab works. In a seated position, her hair coiffed with white scarves, her body slumped, her hands and her skirt weighted with books, she is static. Motionless, she is suspended not only in a particular period in time but also in her social and gender status. Solien imagines that, as a whaler’s wife, she is perpetually waiting for Ahab’s return. Yet he also includes signs of change in her situation: behind her is a long rip in the yellow wallpaper, which might signify that she is “gnawing herself out of her domesticity” (S 12),30 and opposite her a framed picture illustrates a man vigorously chopping down trees with a hefty axe. This figure, who appears in other collages, is, according to Solien, “an acknowledgement of the irreversible damage my way of thinking has done” (S 12). Solien’s commentary reveals that his “way of thinking” resulted in his not being “present” for his wife and family—like Ahab, who was always away at sea. Solien accuses himself of being similarly absent by living too often in the past or the future or his art.
In Night Nurse, Sap, and Reading with Laundry, all of which involve bedroom scenes, Solien’s characterization of Ahab’s wife is more fully developed. Her figure in Night Nurse (Plate X), where she is again encased in nineteenth-century dress, glows luminous against the dull grey of this collage. Despite her stiff shape and face, she appears alert in contrast to Ahab, who, Solien writes, “is anemic, comatose, and reduced to line and shallow volume” (S 1). Above him hovers a large dream that contains a sketchy, “vague white-ish lump” (S 1), resembling the White Whale drawn on the paper on Ahab’s desk in Captain’s Table. At his desk or in his sleep, Solien’s Ahab is controlled by his obsession for Moby Dick, while his wife is more of an “adventurer” than he, “more vital and alive in the world” (S 1).31
In Sap (Plate X), Ahab’s wife again approaches a bed in which an anemic Ahab is stretched out. This bed is the duplicate of that which appeared in Shrunken Heads; not only is it equipped with Dubuffet-inspired, phallic bedposts, but a startling Dubuffet figure rises above the sleeping body of Ahab, evoking a sexually vital Queequeg. Mrs. Ahab dominates this painting and is represented as a robotic figure. Drawn in a childlike manner, she is stiff, her perfect, bouffant hairdo down around her shoulders, her waist pinched, corseted, and constricted by the immense white skirt billowing around her that Solien replicates in several other collages.32 In Sap, her robotic nature is emphasized by her multiple feet, one of which might be attached to a wheel. Represented here and in other images only in profile as if she is living a half-life, she retains her masklike facial expression. Apart from her face, the only other part of her body shown here is an arm; in Sap, this arm has morphed into a “sap,” a kind of club used by gangsters, which in turn has morphed into a whale. Both her life and her husband’s have evidently been sapped by the occupation of whale hunting, which has obsessed him and depressed her, leaving them both unable to glory in the energy and vitality of a Queequeg. Both Ahab and his wife have become “saps” in the sense of their idiotically succumbing to this half-life.
In Reading with Laundry (Plate X), Ahab’s wife, once more identified by her clown face, is in the bed, reading beneath a quilt made of cutout, multipronged stars in gold and green that alternate with black coffins. The foot of her bed is weighted with pieces of cut paper in different shapes and colors, signifying the laundry that she ignores as she reads. Her books, also cut from paper, lie scattered on the floor alongside the bed. Intent on her reading, she is indifferent to the small, manic, Ahab-like figure roughly sketched at the end of the bed, who appears to be hopping mad. Solien’s notes for this collage are a commentary on marital discord, past and present, in which the husband, quite possibly a self-absorbed artist like himself, is emphatically held to blame:
After years of Ahab’s physical absence, coupled with his predisposition for preoccupation and emotional distancing, the marital bed has become a domestic dumping ground, and a place of emotional and physical separation . . . rather than a place of joyful intimacy. . . . Ahab’s conscience might be saying to him that domesticity, and perhaps monogamy, cannot compete with a life of adventure-seeking and other forms of self-gratification . . . Ahab is perpetually unconvinced that life in either the domestic realm or the autonomous life [where] he characteristically lives are, in and of themselves, adequately fulfilling. To discover the answer to this question is to risk all that Ahab has created. Ahab’s emotional paralysis and frustration is, therefore, eternal. (S 21)
Three complex collages—Standing Masthead, Long Branch, and Croquette—take Ahab’s wife out into the open air, where she continues to appear in stiff profile and voluminous skirts. In all three collages, her image is replicated by numerous other women who resemble her exactly and suggest the similarity of her situation to that of other women. In Standing Masthead (Plate X), Solien places her in a curtained masthead that looks more like an opera box than a whale ship. Here she is engaged in spotting an elegant version of Moby Dick with symmetrical, leafy tendrils emerging from his blowhole. Naslund’s Una, like wives of many nineteenth-century captains, actually does go whaling, albeit unmarried and disguised as a boy. The women in Standing Masthead are not looking for the White Whale, but, according to Solien, are frenetically and hyperactively seeking husbands. Using the imagery of the lopsided arched window and the cross-tie, which appeared in both Pulpit and Masthead, Solien again projects the cross, explicitly “urg[ing] the viewer to consider crucifixion and sacrifice as imbedded in the role of the wife” (S 13).
In Long Branch (Plate X), Solien references Winslow Homer’s painting of upper-class, nineteenth-century women in their ballooning dresses, some with parasols held high as in Standing Masthead, promenading along the edge of a cliff while gazing seaward for their absent husbands’ return. Ahab’s wife is singled out by being projected from the cliff on an L-shaped shelf bracket along with her tiny house. Solien describes her as being mounted like the cuckoo in a cuckoo clock (S 20), where her dependent and mechanical position dooms her to perpetual waiting for her absent husband. Despite its focus on the limitations of women’s lives, Solien’s version of Homer’s Long Branch, New Jersey conveys buoyancy and vibrancy. Not only are the women’s dresses brightly patterned, but the collage’s natural setting evokes vivacity. The cliff, while precarious, is covered with multiply colored, energized shapes, collectively suggesting a system of hieroglyphs, such as Ishmael sees as characterizing those on his beloved Queequeg: “a complete theory of the heavens and the earth and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth” (MD 480). The blue sky is filled with clouds that, in the diversity of their shape and color, echo the hieroglyphs on the cliff. Two small, ominous black clouds and a small black ship on a black sea maintain tension in the collage.
Like Standing Masthead and Long Branch, Solien’s Croquette features only women. A fantastical revision of Homer’s 1865 Croquet Players, Croquette eliminates male players from the scene. Their presence in the collage is implied by a plurality of phallic images, including the posts from Queequeg and Ishmael’s bed and a masthead, all of which are lined up along the horizon. Shrubs in Croquette become vaginas. The numerous striped, round balls rolling over the grass and among the curved hoops also balance the bizarre totemic images that replace both men and trees in Homer’s work. Although Croquette is haunted by sexual imagery and women who are proactive, Solien writes that they “are strangely transfixed . . . as if their paranoia and emotional preoccupations have generated a being more mechanical than human” (S 21). Although she holds a croquet mallet, Ahab’s wife, surrounded by her white ruffled hoop, ultimately seems a bridal cake decoration.
Deck Shoes and Skirt (Plates X and X) place Ahab’s wife onboard the whaling ship. Thus she succeeds in adventuring forth as she does in Naslund’s novel, yet both collages comment generally on the savagery of whaling as a commercial enterprise and specifically on the ways in which women’s dress continues to signify cultural stultification. Solien explains that Deck Shoes illustrates that women’s fancy footwear (chopines) elevated them above the detritus of city streets, just as clogs lifted whalers above the detritus of slaughter aboard a whale ship. One of the bizarre, stacked shoes he creates in Deck Shoes is nailed to the deck, immobile amid the “blood and innards awash on a whale ship deck” (S 8),33 implying that Ahab’s wife, like other women, remains stuck in her gender-determined situation. A dainty watering can nearby, which evokes more feminine pursuits, proves useless in cleaning up the slaughter.
Playing on the whalemen’s name for a piece of whale blubber as well as the derogatory synecdoche for a woman, Solien’s Skirt depicts the lower half of a woman’s torso wrapped in a skirt. Although this short, tight-fitting skirt might be more comfortable than a hooped skirt, Solien comments on its lack of pockets (a feature of much women’s clothing past and present) by adding an ink-stained pocket from a man’s shirt and a piece of denim, perhaps further hinting that women might be comfortable in jeans. The bulging skirt reveals the woman to be pregnant, not with a child but with a tree full of pink blossoms. The tree’s trunk has been pierced by black lances, which Solien describes as harpoons. A many-barbed harpoon is attached to her left side, and a white trailer enclosing a smaller pick trailer is attached to her right side, perhaps emblematic of the polarities of victimization and domestication between which many women’s lives are stretched. Solien’s iconic images press against the surface of this collage, and a red blob curls out from the skirt’s lower edge. Although Solien indicates that it might convey “the psychic and physical damage” (S 9) of the whaling environment, it undeniably resembles a soaked menstrual pad. Incongruous pink waves of femininity lap the bottom edge of Skirt.
Man on Island (Plate X) brings together several images related to Ahab’s wife. Consolidating and concentrating them in the center of this collage, Solien enclosed them within a ring as if forming an island in the picture. In the middle of this ring, a man raises an axe against an apple tree—an image similar to that in Composition in Black and White and which appears in utero in Skirt. The ink-stained pocket from Skirt is also part of the collection of objects within the island’s ring. Solien explicitly associates the damaging effects of isolation—of an island mentality—with an episode in Ahab’s Wife as well as with “the life of a studio artist” (S 15). He recalls that the survivors of the whale ship in that novel, including Una, in moving from island to island, “devour everything” in their greed and desperation to survive. Island images are thus associated for Solien with “self-inflicted isolation, loneliness, barrenness, and self-exhaustion” (S 15). He might well have recalled that in Moby-Dick, Melville points out that the members of the Pequod’s crew were largely islanders, and as such “Isolatoes, too, . . . not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own” (MD 121). Melville simultaneously sees these isolated island men as “federated along one keel” (MD 121), as individuals collectively comprising a democracy, but Ahab remains alone, “the quintessential ‘Insulatus,’” which, according to Solien, is his subject here (S 15) and was the title of his 2006 exhibition of works related to Moby-Dick.
Ahab’s wife makes her escape from nineteenth-century domesticity in general and from the life of a whaler’s wife, in particular, in Honeymoon, a 2009/2010 collage. Recalling Naslund’s Una, Solien writes that “the widow’s history prior to her marriage to Ahab was one of self-expression, self-reliance, and adventure” (S 41). In Honeymoon, she is in a 1940s car that has been loaded on top with a diversity of colorful bundles, reminiscent of Queequeg and Ishmael’s overflowing wheelbarrow and carpetbag as well as of 1930s Dust Bowl cars. Among the widow’s possessions are a pitchfork and a pair of skis, which would not be included in a whaleman’s belongings. A sign scrawled “Just Married” hangs aslant on the door of the car, and she sits in the backseat. A man’s dark shadow, which Solien identifies as belonging to Ahab, is sketched on the pavement outside the car, implying that women can never be entirely free from the baggage of their cultural history and its psychological oppressions. Yet Ahab’s wife is freer here than she was in Solien’s other images: the billowing skirts are gone, and she is detached from the little pink trailer. Additional paintings (Bleachers, Black Horse, and The Jockey) present her in entirely new settings, expressing her independent and adventurous spirit by associating her with crowds of people and with horses, indicating her engagement with the new century and the movement westward.
Finally, Ahab’s wife seems to haunt Solien more than Ahab does. Two late portraits, both completed in 2011, place her through her clothes and hairstyle in the early or mid-twentieth century and imply that despite her capacity for adventure and reinvention, she is alone without community and thus comes to resemble Ahab. In Less (Plate X), a large acrylic on canvas, she sits hunched over a table, resembling Edgar Degas’s Absinthe Drinker, an ashtray of cigarette butts, empty glasses, and a small desiccated chicken her only company, her eyes glazed. In an explicit link to Solien’s Ahab, Xs mark her eyes, evoking her oblivion and misery. She stares but seems incapable of seeing the cloud of shimmering moths, hearts, and bows that Solien has painted into the darkness in front of her. All that remains of the widow in Solien’s Gone (Plate X) is a mirrored reflection or a framed painting: an image of an image. Despite an elusive beauty and dignity, she has become an object, surrounded by a variety of objects in an antique mall, whose ownership, history, and intrinsic value are unknown or determined by commerce.
“The All-Grasping Western World”
Throughout Moby-Dick, Herman Melville makes his readers aware of “the all-grasping western world” (MD 380), obsessive in its desire to dominate, control, colonize, exploit. The western world, as Melville generalizes about it, is greedy not only for whales but also for other natural resources, for lands, for peoples. In Solien’s early collages based on Moby-Dick and in the long shadow he lays on the future through his later depictions related to the settlement of the American West by Europeans in Toward the Setting Sun, he interprets Melville’s response to western development. Although his more recent paintings in this series do not directly engage Moby-Dick, Solien has testified that Melville’s novel opened the nineteenth century to him, and that “this has changed my view of the world in which I live.”
The paintings directly connected with Moby-Dick and Ahab’s Wife, discussed throughout this essay, provide a trajectory for understanding T. L. Solien’s subsequent work, which evokes historical and personal episodes from American and Solien family history. Ahab’s wife in these later works participates in western expansion across the continent, witnesses war and colonization, experiences disastrous weather, disease, the death of children. These works suggest the multiple ways in which women have continued reinventing themselves from the nineteenth into the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, enduring devastation and desolation but becoming astute observers, adventurers, and artists. Permeating all of Solien’s art is his tragic–comic sensibility—a nagging sense of chaos, uncertainty, depression, and loss, generated by fragmentation and disintegrating forms, fused with the possibilities for whimsy and satire, change and transcendence through stunning colors and startling characterizations. Solien’s ethic lies in this tragic–comic sensibility, one comparable to Melville’s own but rare among the countless artists who have illuminated Moby-Dick.
1. The collages, created during 2005 and 2006, were first exhibited at the Luise Ross Gallery in New York City.
2. This comment and subsequent statements by T. L. Solien regarding the development of the ideas for his paintings in the Fargo exhibition were made during a telephone interview with the author, October 26, 2012.
3. See my book “Unpainted to the Last”: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995).
4. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or The Whale (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1988 ), 264. Subsequent references to quotations from Moby-Dick are cited parenthetically in the text.
5. Moby-Dick was first illustrated in 1896 by A. Burnham Shute.
6. Eric A. Kimmel, Moby Dick: Chasing the Great White Whale (New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2012).
7. See Robert K. Wallace, Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick: Words and Shapes (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000). Stella created more than one artwork for several of the novel’s chapters.
8. Matt Kish, Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page (Portland, Ore., and New York: Tin House Books, 2011).
9. The exception among the works discussed here is Carpetbag, which was created in 2008.
10. In 2011, Tristin Lowe created Mocha Dick, a fifty-two foot white whale with a vinyl inflatable understructure sheathed in white industrial felt. The sculpture, made in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, has been displayed in several galleries. Regarding his creation, the artist said, “It is not about Ahab’s quest for revenge, and not even about the whale itself, but more about Ishmael’s search for the unattainable.”
11. In a later and much larger painting, Carpet Bag (2010, 60 x 72 inches), Solien focuses solely on a suitcase similar to Ishmael’s, associating it with a bag in the Wisconsin Historical Museum as well as one his own immigrant family might have used in traveling westward across the United States. The carpetbag in this painting is closed and does not reveal its contents.
12. Solien adds that he is interested “especially in images of piles of similar objects like suitcases in the Holocaust Museum, Guston’s piles of legs and shoes, and images of the living spaces of those who are afflicted with a pathological hoarding impulse” (S 16). Through Colleen Sheehy, curator of Toward the Setting Sun, I was provided with notes written by Solien in 2007–8 on his early paintings. These will be quoted extensively and indicated parenthetically with S.
13. Two artists who have re-created the Spouter Inn’s painting are Robert Del Tredici and Mary Klayder. Both of these works are in the Elizabeth Schultz Melville Collection at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
14. Solien expresses his conviction that Melville embodies the qualities of “a typical Turner . . . in the mysterious Spouter painting” (S 4), revealing his familiarity with Robert K. Wallace’s magisterial study of Melville’s knowledge of Turner, Melville & Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1992).
15. In Chapter 55, Melville describes an 1836 representation of a sperm whale by scientist Frederick Cuvier as resembling a squash (MD 262).
16. Solien writes that Jean Dubuffet’s paintings and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian influenced his creation of the “all over tattooed” (S 5) bedposts and heads.
17. Orson Welles (in John Huston’s 1956 version of Moby-Dick) and Gregory Peck (in the 1997 Moby-Dick television miniseries) have delivered notable performances of Father Mapple.
18. The larger head in this image appears in another collage from this series, Andirons, and is identified by Solien as Queequeg. Melville describes Queequeg as “George Washington cannibalistically developed” (MD 50).
19. Other characters in the novel are frequently depicted, but perhaps because Melville’s description of Ahab is so detailed he appears prominently in all illustrated editions. Such Moby-Dick artists as Rockwell Kent, Boardman Robinson, and Gilbert Brown Wilson repeatedly illustrated the Pequod’s captain—as if through repetition they might understand him. It is notable that Barry Moser was prohibited by the publisher of Arion Press, Andrew Hoyem, from representing any of the novel’s characters. That contemporary artists have increasingly depicted both Queequeg and Pip suggests a growing interest in these non–European American characters.
20. Solien cites his debt to both Picasso and René Magritte for his image of the pipe in He (S 11).
21. Klauba’s Pip sequence consists of The Castaway (2003) and Pip’s Dream Trilogy: Immersion (2008), Surrender (2008), and Rebirth (2008). Piercefield’s sequence is Pip Alone (2009), Surrender (2009), and Transcendence (2009).
22. Solien also compares Pip’s experience to Adam and Eve’s “banishment from the Garden . . . and continues as a metaphor for the outcome of non-conformity or existing outside the societal/cultural structure” (S 18). Solien adds that “Pip’s experience and resultant transformation is a testimony to the power gained by risking isolation or existing untethered to institutions, as many artists do, as well as a warning of what one might expect if one chooses this path” (S 18).
23. Notably, two artists have illuminated the underwater scene of the Pequod’s sinking: Mark Milloff in his immense pastels Queequeg’s Last Long Dive and Fata Morgana, both 2002–5 and reproduced as glicée prints, and Alan Drummond in the concluding pages of his children’s version of Moby Dick (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997).
24. In this chapter, Ishmael meditates on the sea through a transcendental lens. He speculates on the possibilities of falling from the masthead to a very real death in the inscrutable sea.
25. This is true of Night Nurse, Reading with Laundry, Composition in Black and White, Long Branch, Croquette, The Greenhouse, Deck Shoes, Skirt, and The Jockey.
26. Solien also made 30 x 36 inch collages inspired by themes related to Ahab’s Wife in later years: Bleachers (2009), Her Easel Pelican Lake (2009), Black Horse (2009), Honeymoon (2009/2010), and Gone (2011). Sap, an oil on canvas, was created in 2006–7 and is larger than the collages (60 x 72 inches). A second, larger version of The Jockey (78 x 96 inches) was created with oil and acrylic on canvas in 2010, and Less, his largest work in the series (84 x 96 inches), was created in acrylic on canvas in 2011.
27. “Call Me Una,” H Books, The New York Times on the Web, October 3, 1999.
28. Quoted by Jamie Allen, “A Twentieth-Century Response to a Nineteenth-Century Novel: Author Says ‘Ahab’s Wife’ Is an ‘Epic Story of an American Woman,’” CNN, November 8, 1999.
29. Whistler’s full title for his portrait of Carlyle is Arrangement in Black and White, No. 2: Thomas Carlyle; his full title for his portrait of his mother is Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.
30. Solien’s suggestion perhaps indicates his awareness of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), a short story in which a young housewife is confined to a room with yellow wallpaper where she becomes increasingly mad.
31. In Chapter 44, “The Chart,” Melville describes Ahab as being so obsessed and so tormented by anger and hatred he is unable to sleep.
32. In 1998, a year before Naslund’s publication of Ahab’s Wife, Ellen Driscoll, sculptor and multimedia artist, presented an exhibition and performance in which the character of Ahab’s wife was enacted wearing a ballooning, hooped skirt with a map of the world painted on it.
33. The images of slaughter here have been recycled from the slabs set out for Queequeg in Spouter Breakfast.
Elizabeth Schultz is professor emerita of English at the University of Kansas, where she taught for thirty-four years. She is a founding member of the Melville Society and a renowned scholar of Herman Melville and Moby-Dick. She is the author of “Unpainted to the Last”: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art, which accompanied an art exhibition she curated of American art inspired by Moby-Dick.
Rockwell Kent, [Moby Dick Rises], in Moby-Dick (New York: Random House, 1930), 265. Rockwell Kent Legacies.
Frank Stella, The Whiteness of the Whale (IRS-1, 2X), 1987. Mixed media on etched magnesium and aluminum, 149 x 121 ¾ inches. Cat. no. 82. Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Matt Kish, Ahab is for ever Ahab, man., in Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page (Portland, Ore., and New York: Tin House Books, 2011), 539.
Jackson Pollock, (Blue (Moby Dick)), c. 1943. Gouache and ink on composition board, 18 ¼ x 23 7/8 inches. Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Japan. c. 1994 Pollock–Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Paul Jenkins, Hommage à Melville, 1953. Tempera on paper, mounted on canvas, 46 7/8 x 24 3/8 inches. Collection of Paul and Suzanne Jenkins.
Richard Ellis, sketch for Moby Dick Mural, 1984. Acrylic on illustration board, 6 x 24 inches. The Elizabeth Schultz Collection, New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Robert Del Tredici, And if you be a philosopher . . . , 1965–66. Photo-offset of pen and ink drawing on paper, 8 ½ x 11 inches. The Elizabeth Schultz Collection, New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Rockwell Kent, [Ishmael and Queequeg], in Moby-Dick (New York: Random House, 1930), 36. Rockwell Kent Legacies.
Jean Dubuffet, Seaside of the Virtual, 1963. Oil on canvas, 220 x 190 cm. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Kathleen Piercefield, Queequeg in His Own Person, 2008. Collage, monotype, polyester plate lithography, etching, hand-coloring on paper, mounted and stretched on canvas (eight panels), 92 x 40 inches.
T. L. Solien, No Suicides, 2005–6. Mixed-media collage on paper, 30 x 36 inches.
T. L. Solien, Our Things, 2005–6. Mixed-media collage on paper, 30 x 36 inches. Collection of James Dyke.
Pablo Picasso, Minotaur Moving House, 1936. Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm. Musée Picasso, Paris.
Rockwell Kent, [Ahab], in Moby-Dick (New York: Random House, 1930), 307. Rockwell Kent Legacies.
Gilbert Brown Wilson, Insanity Series #3: I Am Madness Maddened, c. 1950. Gouache with colored pencil on paper, 21 x 29 inches. Sheldon Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana. Gift of the artist.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Black and White, No. 2: Thomas Carlyle, 1872–73. Oil on canvas, 1711 x 1435 mm. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland.
T. L. Solien, The Leaking Room, 2006. Mixed-media collage on paper, 30 x 36 inches. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Schwarz.
T. L. Solien, Pip, 2006. Mixed-media collage on paper, 30 x 36 inches. Collection of Merritt Dyke.
Mark Milloff, Fata Morgana, 2002–5. Giclée print, 21 ½ x 32 inches. The Elizabeth Schultz Collection of Melville-Inspired Art, New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Winslow Homer, Long Branch, New Jersey, 1869. Oil on canvas, 16 x 21 ¾ inches. Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
T. L. Solien, Croquette, 2006. Mixed-media collage on paper, 30 x 36 inches. Collection
of Mr. and Mrs. Alan Stevens.
Winslow Homer, Croquet Players, 1865. Oil on canvas, 16 x 26 inches. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.
T. L. Solien, Honeymoon, 2009–10. Mixed-media collage on paper, 30 x 36 inches.
From Sea to Shining Sea: T. L. Solien and the American Sublime
Colleen J. Sheehy
It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.
“There she blows!—There she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is
—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
With our faces uplifted toward the stars, he said to me, “And what
do you think, Una, of these heartless immensities?”
“That we are part of them, and they are part of us.”
—Sena Jeter Naslund, Ahab’s Wife; or, The Star-Gazer
I’m always heading West in my mind.
—T. L. Solien1
The Coen brothers’ film Fargo opens on a blur of blinding whiteness—a blizzard, it turns out, as viewers slowly make out a scene of a car driving on a highway in open countryside. The hapless car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard, is making his way from Minneapolis to Fargo through this dangerous weather to meet with two criminals and arrange for them to kidnap his wife. In his essay “The American Sublime in Fargo,” philosopher Richard A. Gilmore connects the whiteness that opens the film with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and to notions of an American sublime that relate to the vast landscape and encompass psychological and emotional dimensions of the film’s characters.2 Certainly Melville’s chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” is one of the oddest yet profound philosophical treatises in American fiction, combining elements associated with the sublime (fear, wonder, bewilderment, fascination, and awe) that compel Ahab to go literally to the ends of the earth in his search—and in revenge.
The visual artist T. L. Solien grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, and knows well the white, open land that Lundegaard traverses. His Norwegian and Swedish ancestors settled in the area in the 1800s, some of them farming near Grafton, North Dakota; his mother’s great-grandfather settled near Avril in western Minnesota, where he built a sod house in the side of a hill. Solien and his family lived around the Red River Valley, in Grand Forks and then on both sides of the Red River, between Fargo and Moorhead, Minnesota, for most of the boy’s upbringing. The artist recounted a memory of going out in a blizzard when he was young and discovering that he was quickly blinded by snow and wind. Years later, he reflected on the possibility of his freezing to death, disoriented by the intense whiteness, had he chosen the wrong direction when walking back toward the house. After all, he noted, every winter there were stories about people who had frozen to death in blizzards.3
“Living in the Plains you’d see surreal things,” stated American painter James Rosenquist, remembering his childhood near Grand Forks. “You’d see mirages. These kinds of little things make, I think, the curiosity, or the inquisitiveness, that make an artist.”4 He observed that the distortions in scale of objects in the landscape and the strange juxtapositions of the uncanny and the ordinary he experienced as a child shaped his large-scale paintings, where disparate elements, painted in realistic style, collide in surreal, suggestive tableaux. Rosenquist didn’t paint the landscape, but the scale of his paintings addresses the vastness of space on the Great Plains and the Midwestern prairies where he cut his teeth painting enormous billboards and signs in North Dakota and Minnesota in the 1950s, when Solien was growing up in the region. Rosenquist headed east to New York City in 1955, taking the scale of his Midwestern billboards to Times Square and then to his studio paintings, which soon made pop art history.
Unlike Rosenquist, Solien did not move to New York City when he became a young artist two decades later. He continued to be haunted by the landscapes of his childhood. “I felt like I needed roots that go into the ground,” he commented. “I desire to see the sky. I like to feel the envelope of the blue dome.”5 After graduating from the art department at Moorhead State College (now Minnesota State University–Moorhead) and earning an M.F.A. in another Great Plains state at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Solien spent five years in Minneapolis, then six months in Paris on a fellowship. In 1983, fresh from the Whitney Biennial, the artist returned to the Red River Valley, settling in an old farmhouse near Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, just east of Fargo–Moorhead.
Solien couldn’t be called a landscape painter, though landscape is often evoked in his work, forming the ground for figures and images. Like Rosenquist, he builds compelling images from highly charged objects, figures, and fragments that relate to each other in rather undefined and shallow space. Solien’s images sometimes show landscape characteristics—a horizon line, a far-off rise of mountains. More than physical space, he conveys psychological and emotional landscapes. Critic Eleanor Heartney wrote about his art in the late 1980s:
In recent paintings, landscape—though often so spare it barely seems to exist—has itself become a compelling character. Far more than just the stage upon which events are enacted or symbolic elements display themselves, Solien’s panoramas are themselves imbued with the sense of pathos, vulnerability, and existential threat that is one of his work’s recurring themes.6
In the new body of work featured in Toward the Setting Sun, Solien depicts landscapes more than ever before, a fitting context for telling tales of people who leave the shore for an endless expanse of sea, inspired by his reading of Moby-Dick, or embark into the endless expanse of land in the American West, inspired by other studies. By considering this important aspect of his recent series in relation to the meaning of landscape in American history and art history, we gain deeper insights into how Solien talks to the past as he contemplates our present and future.
This new work created since 2003 is the longest running cycle of the artist’s career, comprising nearly four hundred works on paper, large-scale paintings, and small sculptures. Solien reaches back to the nineteenth century on an extended reflection on American stories—fictional, historical, and legendary. He is drawn to mythic and allegorical tales and persons, and mixes figures that range from high to low, from Christ to the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. He juxtaposes images not as a field of meaningless, untethered signs but to reflect on mystifying riddles about the conundrums of modern life and modern manhood and their implications for the lifelong voyage of the contemporary artist.
In the fifty-nine works in T. L. Solien: Toward the Setting Sun, we witness an artist working out the equation of ocean and land, destructive delusions and redemptive visions. As noted by Elizabeth A. Schultz in her essay in this volume and her revealing book Unpainted to the Last: Moby-Dick and Twentieth-Century American Art, an astonishing number of American artists have responded to Melville’s novel. Yet Solien is the first and only to move beyond Moby-Dick to embrace its contemporary sequel in the story of Una Spenser from Sena Jeter Naslund’s magnificent 1999 novel, Ahab’s Wife; or, The Star-gazer. Through this character, whom Solien imagines traveling West after Ahab’s death, he engages the history of pioneer settlement and translates the sublime from something “out there” found in a white whale or in the landscape to something interior, something of the spirit, and related to the artistic endeavor.
The through-line of this new corpus is carried by the large works on paper that make up the majority of pieces. Following their literary referents, an oblique narrative carries the series forward, with detours to actual historic events or to Solien’s own life and family history. Solien has created compellingly beautiful and strange imagery using latex and acrylic paints, homemade black walnut washes, pen and ink, gouache, and watercolor. In feats of postmodern mixing, he combines sources of imagery from vintage children’s activities books, carpentry manuals, old postcards, historic snapshots, and books found during his regular sifting through Salvation Army treasure troves, antique stores, junk shops, and garage sales. He involves the past directly in collages made from historic sources as well as cut paper, which attain a dynamic three-dimensionality. Similar to the variety of his collage materials, the artist mixes references to famous paintings in the Western canon by Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, and George Caleb Bingham—sometimes wholly copying compositions of classic art, sometimes borrowing elements. The diverse visual modes that Solien deploys parallel the literary modes Melville adopts in Moby-Dick. “The novel seems like it’s written by different authors,” Solien noted, “with narrative stops and starts.”7
Like his visual mash-ups, Solien also mixes literary subjects and historical sources, infused with a strong dose of autobiography and family history. In the two series in this exhibition, Insulatus and To the West, Solien brings together in an incredibly inventive, insightful way the story of Ahab and the seascapes of nineteenth-century American whaling with the endless stretches of the American Great Plains and the history of Western settlement. Both whalers and pioneers headed “toward the setting sun,” both motivated by similar obsessions, at once lofty, philosophical, economically driven, and, at times, desperate.8 The link between the sea and the Great Plains was even connected by Melville, as Elizabeth A. Schultz explains in a recent essay.9
Over the past ten years, Solien has pursued Ahab, slowly merging the sea captain’s quest with the broader American search for rebirth and economic prosperity that underpinned the mass migration to the Western frontier. He adopts and extends the approach taken by Naslund with her protagonist, imagining Ahab’s wife as an “everywoman” who experiences countless adventures and adapts to new circumstances with intrepid grace. She appears in Solien’s art with a masklike visage that at times becomes a kabuki mask or a clown face, inspired by a drawing he discovered in a 1930s children’s drawing book. In contrast to Naslund, who creates a fully fleshed-out, complex character, Solien renders Ahab’s wife with a mysterious flatness, expressionless, resistant to personal revelation, archetypal. She is a bold pioneer–voyager who takes on a multitude of roles: jockey, painter, settler’s wife. Solien makes her a time-traveler, imagining her moving from 1850s Nantucket, Massachusetts, where she is depicted wearing nineteenth-century hoop dresses, to Fargo, where she peeks out a window along Front Street in the 1890s and strolls through the city’s Island Park, and later places her in the era of car travel in the 1930s. She is, the artist stated, “a voice [I use] to represent human feeling.”10
Transferring Ahab’s wife to the American Plains and even further West arose from Solien’s serious investigation of American history as ground and fuel for his imagery and narrative. As he developed this work, he read dozens of books in “new Western history” by scholars interested in understanding the pioneer experience in its gritty and often first-person social and physical particulars. One summer, he followed the historic Oregon Trail route from Independence, Missouri, to the Pacific Ocean, and the next year he drove the southern route, the Santa Fe Trail. These journeys inspired new ideas and imagery in his ongoing series.
T. L. Solien’s deep excavation of American history resonates with the recurring concerns of many contemporary artists. Curator Nato Thompson identified this preoccupation among artists working in sculpture, textiles, video, photography, and even historic reenactment in his 2007 exhibition at MASS MoCA, Ahistoric Occasion: Artists Making History. Photographer Greta Pratt documents the odd ways that Americans remember and reinvent our history, while Allison Smith gathers people together to act out nineteenth-century rituals and events. Toby Kamps recognized a related vein in his 2008 exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, The Old, Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art, which united artists who plumbed the past for folklore, folk remedies, and visual styles, sometimes searching for origins of our continued violence, as with Barnaby Furnas’s extreme video-game portrayals of Civil War battles. Others seek past cultural traditions with a vitality that still might serve us today, as in the projects of alchemist–sculptor Dario Robleto. The nineteenth century holds particular fascination for many artists as part of a wider cultural preoccupation with the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, slavery and its aftermath, and women’s suffrage, as though that period was the origin of many of our current challenges, divisions, and unresolved puzzles.11 By revisiting these historic divides and battles, contemporary artists seem to suggest that we might better understand our present dilemmas and impasses by seeing them as recurring patterns over time.
That Solien would take on Moby-Dick participates in a larger context of the novel’s rediscovery and revival, as seen in its growing number of marathon readings and online recitations. Naslund’s novel, which received strong critical and popular reception, also helped to return attention to a nineteenth-century literary classic that had fallen off many reading lists in the academy and in the reading public. Other visual artists continue to address Moby-Dick, from Kim Bromley, a painter in the Department of Visual Arts at North Dakota State University, to Matt Kish of Columbus, Ohio, who undertook a mammoth project to create an illustration for every page of the novel.12 All of a sudden, the novel and its offspring seem to be around every turn.13
Moby-Dick is one of the “urtexts” of American literature, a work so revealing of a national ethos that Canadian writer Margaret Atwood claims it could be used to explain the United States to Martians.14 Writing about the novel in A New Literary History of America, the cultural critic Greil Marcus argues that it is so embedded in American values and sensibilities that “the book reads the culture and the culture reads the book,” the two locked in an inevitable embrace as “the sea we swim in.”15 Its epic dimensions, Solien recognized, could be a description of the artist: the obsessive pursuit of an elusive goal, a metaphysical struggle with unseen and perhaps unknowable forces. In fact, Solien became interested in the figure of Ahab precisely because he thought of him as a metaphor for the artist—someone who is away, physically and often mentally and emotionally, from his wife and family for long stretches in the studio. As Solien considered his project, he conflated Ahab visually with Abraham Lincoln, remembering drawings of the president that he created as a boy every year on Presidents’ Day. In the end, he depicts Ahab obliquely in his series.
By conflating one mythic obsession of a single but archetypal American character—Ahab—with the mythic preoccupation with the West that obsessed an entire nation, Solien, as a visual artist, engages, too, with the meaning and history of American landscape painting and its central role in expressing an American sublime. With these epic adventure stories infusing his work, Solien’s landscapes in Toward the Setting Sun must be read in relation to American notions of wilderness and the history of American landscape painting. Nineteenth-century landscape painting was the context against which American expansion took place. The American land—a wide-open, unexploited natural world—has deep philosophical roots as a cornerstone of American identity. Here was, as Emerson called it, “Nature’s Nation,” a place so abundant and pure that it was considered a new Eden, where an “American Adam” could act with natural God-given rights of freedom, individuality, and self-determination.16 As the new country continued to expand West in the nineteenth century, the idea of a divinely ordained nation gave rise to the political drive of Manifest Destiny, which espoused that Americans were meant to inhabit the continent, from sea to sea. Gold rushes, land rushes, removal of American Indians to reservations, the transcontinental railroad, and mass migration to the West followed. By 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared at the Columbian World’s Exposition in Chicago that the frontier had closed.
Nineteenth-century American painting participated in fueling and sometimes masking these philosophical concepts and economic and expansionist developments. With the rise of the Hudson River School of painters in the 1830s, American art moved from its focus on portraiture as the dominant genre to landscape. This was the new “history” painting, featuring the American landscape as the birthright and heritage of the United States. “Images of the landscape and ideas of the nation were deeply intertwined,” art historian Tim Barringer notes.17 The Romantic movement of the era was infused with interpretations of the sublime, which had developed in eighteenth-century England following Edmund Burke’s 1757 treatise on the subject, whose ideas were adopted by American artists. The immensities of wilderness, the height of the American Rockies, the unfathomable drama of Niagara Falls and other American wonders evoked feelings of awe, mystery, majesty, and fear, inspiring artists such as Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran, Frederic Edwin Church, and Albert Bierstadt to create large-scale paintings of wilderness landscapes for Eastern audiences. Their paintings were effective on many fronts: they helped to promote efforts to preserve spectacular natural treasures, leading to the establishment of national parks, yet they also fostered a sense of infinite wilderness and of resources waiting to be discovered and turned into money-making endeavors.18 How could so much wilderness and open land ever be expended or threatened?
Despite the closing of the frontier at century’s end and the continued growth of American cities and industrialization, landscape as a kind of sacred expression found extended life in the twentieth century in two sources: modernist painting and American film. Modernists who pioneered American abstraction, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, and Arthur Dove, continued to look to nature as a source of spiritual communion and sustenance. Hartley and O’Keeffe reveled in the mountains, skies, and colors of New Mexico. Other artists, like the expressionist Charles Burchfield, captured dynamic interpretations of modest landscape scenes, animated by waves of energy.
At the time these artists were immersed in nature as a sacred force and counterbalance to urban life, American film directors assumed the role of exalting the American West as it was seen in nineteenth-century painting. Solien has acknowledged the role film played on his study of the West, recognizing how the genre, particularly the Westerns of director John Ford, has shaped our perceptions of glorious and high-minded aspects of our shared history. Ford made eighty movies in this genre, building the career of John Wayne with Stagecoach (1939) and many films thereafter. Wayne became the quintessential American cowboy, an American Adam towering against the primitive rock forms of Monument Valley, Ford’s favorite setting for his films. Ford loved the rugged landscape of the Western scene and specialized in long shots of cowboys and pioneers against magnificent expanses. Solien embarked on an ongoing study of Hollywood Westerns from John Ford’s Stagecoach to his Depression-era story of Western migration, Grapes of Wrath, to one of his greatest and most troubled films, The Searchers. Solien also was fascinated with more recent films that took the shine off the old West, such as Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1991), and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). Not only do these films show their protagonists as antiheroes, but their landscapes also seem haunted and bewildering rather than holy ground for heroic action. In Meek’s Cutoff (2010), director Kelly Reichardt uses long shots of pioneers set against landscape and sky in a similar way to Ford, but the landscape is mystifying and blank as the small cadre of pioneers wanders in search of water, losing confidence in its blustery leader. In his work Day in Heaven, Solien makes direct reference to the 1978 film Days of Heaven by Terrence Malick, in which the director tries to recapture the visual allure of the frontier but renders the settler’s home as an illusionary stage set. Solien takes that image even further, creating the house as a façade only, its illusion a comment on the trumped-up marketing of the West by railroad companies and other businesses to lure settlers to unpromising land, not “the promised land.”
Landscape as a genre nearly disappeared from serious painting after World War II, giving the subject over to photography, with projects rephotographing nineteenth-century views or looking at the profane landscapes of commerce and middle America. And landscape painting conceded ground to printmakers, who printed pop landscapes like Ed Ruscha’s commercial roadside signs and buildings. Then in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, museums and curators noted a return to landscape as subject. American artists, working against the backdrop of landscape painting that “embodied national hopes, beliefs, and ideals of the American people,” now were offering “a more limited, anxious view of nature.”19 Artists were making images that took into account the frank knowledge of how humans have despoiled the land. Their perspective brings disquiet to their scenes, conveying the knowledge that what we see is fragile, fragmented, and imperiled. Curator Naomi Vine gathered together artists from Roger Brown to Roger Lobe and April Gornik for Destiny Manifest: Landscape Painting in the Nineties, organized by the Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida–Gainesville, and observed that humans were strangely absent from their landscapes, which were characterized by “eccentric scale and eerie light.” Others in the show, such as Alexis Rockman, were concerned with possible futures of nature. Many artists emphasized that fragments of the natural world are all that can survive. Some artists continued to find emotional ballast in landscape, expressed in the abstract work of Pat Steir and Tobi Kahn in Landscape at the Millennium in 1999 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.20
Solien’s depictions of the West challenge the tradition of sublime landscape, focusing more forthrightly on the land as the context for grim realities of the frontier. His deadpan delivery of American landscape, often rendered in shallow space with even overall light rather than glows of sunsets or sunbeams bursting through parted clouds, diverges from scenes of dramatic places. Hole in the Ground, for instance, relies on a historical photograph of a settler couple in front of their sod house from Steven Kinsella’s book 900 Miles from Nowhere. Other Solien images depict wide views that portray the vastness of nature with humans as small, vulnerable figures. We see this in C-Train, a reference to the wagon trains that were stricken with cholera, resulting in many deaths along the trail West and requiring pioneers to burn the belongings and even the wagons of the sick and deceased. Similarly, The Children’s Blizzard depicts tiny figures overwhelmed by the storm, huddling together to stay alive, a reference to the frightening 1888 blizzard that descended rapidly on the Great Plains on a warm day and resulted in hundreds of deaths.21 In both of these images, the land is obscured, leaving the human inhabitants in ambiguous space.
The Great 1894 Hinckley Fire in Minnesota, another natural disaster recently documented in vivid detail in a new study, also caught Solien’s attention. His title Waterlilies recalls Claude Monet’s famous paintings, but its composition borrows from George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. With a skeleton draped across the lap of Ahab’s wife in a pietà position, the image makes reference to the Hinckley disaster, when those fleeing the fire sought refuge in nearby ponds but perished anyway. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s and a historic photograph inspired Solien’s landscape in Desolation Sisters, where two girls huddle together against a flaming orange landscape.22 In Solien’s series, the landscape is often deadly, indifferent to human strivings—not an inspiration for rebirth and reinvention.
Solien’s treatment of the picture planes of his work, interrupted with dots and blobs and drips of color, also demonstrates his refusal to create a unified, glorious view of the landscape. His recurring bright ovals, circles, and other shapes contribute visual tension and dynamism that resist a viewer’s reading the image as a holistic, illusionistic scene. These forms are not decorative and often seem unsettling and odd. One goal of these compositional elements, the artist stated, was to address the question “How can a two-dimensional image still be surprising?” His resistance to pictorial wholeness subverts our reading the art as a window to the world or a revelation of truth. Of his interpolated fields of color, he says: “It is not traditional illusionism; space is not constructed in an orderly fashion. The perspective is fractured. There are acts of visual aggression.” He is not interested in a “homogenous image” but wants to “create preposterous visual structure.” Bright blotches of color “unsettle the surface of the work”: they “make the space breathe so the viewer can see how the image exists in various points in space.” The interruptions in the picture plane also represent physical qualities he likes in old paintings in junk stores, where chunks of paint have chipped or fallen off the surface, giving the object a feeling of vulnerability.23 All of these techniques signal a resistance to the visual strategies that were the foundation of traditional American landscape painting.
Despite Solien’s harsh and barren landscapes that undercut issues of American divine calling or the sublime, the artist nonetheless offers a sense of redemption. The journeys he imagines for Ahab’s wife further develop a sensibility that Sena Jeter Naslund originally gives her within the novel. With tragedies to withstand at every turn, this woman rebounds, adapts, discovers new life and new love in whatever place she finds herself. As someone whose narrative voice is established by the novel’s first line, “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last,” Una proposes that life moves on despite tragedies and death. Solien imagines her life post-Ahab in the American West, as she continues to time travel through epochs and eras, facing new challenges and disasters. He often depicts her in green, benevolent landscapes, where the setting seems to express her energy and resilience. In Her Easel Pelican Lake, he places her in green woods along a lake shore as she paints outside a small cabin; Pelican Lake in Minnesota is famous for its lake homes and recreation for Fargo–Moorhead residents. In The Small Depression, she appears as a traveler, perhaps an oddly fashionable Depression-era migrant, camping in a lush verdant landscape, also near water. Sometimes, Solien suggests, nature can be abundant, supportive, and restorative, not just a nightmare that snatches life away by calamity.
Perhaps inadvertently and unrecognized even to himself, Solien locates the sublime in people, not landscape. His focus on the great challenges and tragedies of American history, the incomprehensibly hard living, a constant threat of death and disease, the moving on that pioneers endured (his own ancestors among them) conveys awe and amazement about these earlier Americans. His fascination with their lives in the face of calamities and hard times expresses sublime emotions—awe, fear, wonder—about those who did endure, survive, and carry on despite personal hardships and catastrophe. In the end, the sublime is also lodged in Solien as an artist. As Richard A. Gilmore argues in his discussion of the movie Fargo, the sublime is not something “out there” in the landscape: it is located in the perceiver’s reaction to the out there,24 just as Una recognizes with her new companion, Ishmael, at the close of Ahab’s Wife. She states that the wonder of nature in the stars and the universe is part of us on earth, not something remote, unfathomable, or monstrous—like a white whale.
Following a mutuality between self and other, Solien dissolves boundaries between genders, between past and present, between interior life and exterior reality in the most recent work in this series. In Re-enactor, the widow has taken on male gender roles just as she did in the novel as a disguised, gender-bending cabin boy on a whaling ship. In this collage, she peeks out of a bearded face, appearing as a Union soldier but possibly, in later times, as a re-enactor of past battles. In L’Étranger, the widow has become a cowboy. In tracing the arc of Ahab’s wife’s life over a hundred years, Solien also gives her an afterlife. In Gone, her portrait is displayed in an antique store amid knick-knacks and other paraphernalia. She has been absorbed into the flow of history, artifacts, and images, an anonymous life waiting to be rediscovered.
In Naslund’s novel and in the work of T. L. Solien, the widow overcomes the destructiveness and hubris of her husband. Solien looks to her for a redemptive vision that can also be instructive—to him as the obsessive artist and as an American man, and to Americans more broadly. The flexibility, adaptability, and resilience of the widow are qualities that may help us to move forward with the weight of the past bearing on us, with its tragedies and heroics written on our landscapes. Solien is interested in exploring issues that arose in his literary sources and in American history that are also pertinent to us today, and not only for himself: “How do we get from one place to another without destroying things along the way?”25 Solien sees our earlier historical narrative of American history and of Moby-Dick as “a prophetic allegory, encompassing our current dilemmas with the economic disaster of the Great Recession, the ‘New Gilded Age’ of economic disparities, and an irretrievably altered environment.”26 In the end, T. L. Solien has assumed the role of storyteller Ishmael in this monumental series, offering us cautionary tales like an ancient mariner, compelled to tell anyone who will look and listen.
1. Author interview with T. L. Solien, Minneapolis, October 12, 2009.
2. Richard A. Gilmore, “The American Sublime in Fargo,” in Doing Philosophy at the Movies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 57–80.
3. Author conversation with Solien, Fargo, February 18, 2013.
4. Rosenquist quoted in Walter Hopps, “Connoisseur of the Inexplicable,” James Rosenquist: A Retrospective (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2003), 4. See also James Rosenquist’s memoir, Painting below Zero: Notes on a Life in Art (New York: Knopf, 2009), 3–8.
5. T. L. Solien in the documentary T. L. Solien: Voyage of the Tin Man, produced by Vermillion Editions and Plains Art Museum, 1989.
6. Eleanor Heartney, T. L. Solien (exhibition catalogue) (Moorhead, Minn.: Plains Art Museum, 1988), n.p.
7. Author interview with Solien, June 15, 2012, Madison, Wisconsin.
8. Solien took this phrase, which became the title of this exhibition, from a chapter title in Steven R. Kinsella’s book 900 Miles from Nowhere: Voices from the Homestead Frontier (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2006).
9. Elizabeth A. Schultz, “From ‘Sea of Grass’ to ‘Wire and Rail’: Melville’s Evolving Perspectives on the Prairies,” American Studies 52, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 30–47.
10. Author interview with Solien, June 15, 2012, Madison, Wisconsin.
11. See my essay, “Waking the Dead: Music, Art, and the Basement Noise of History,” in The Old, Weird America: Folk Themes in Contemporary Art (Houston: Contemporary Art Museum Houston, 2008), 38–51.
12. Matt Kish, Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page (Portland, Ore. and New York: Tin House Books, 2011).
13. See Elizabeth A. Schultz, “Creating Icons: Melville in Visual Media and Popular Culture,” in A Companion to Herman Melville, ed. Wyn Kelly (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 532–51. Other evidence of the Moby-Dick revival includes the recent books K. L. Evans, Whale! (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), and Cesare Casarino, Modernity at Sea: Melville, Marx, Conrad in Crisis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).
14. Margaret Atwood, “Hello Martians, Let Moby-Dick Explain,” New York Times, April 29, 2012, Sunday Review, 6–7.
15. Greil Marcus, “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale,” in A New Literary History of America, ed. Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009), 283–89.
16. See R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1959).
17. Tim Barringer, “The Course of Empire: Landscape and Identity in America and Britain, 1820–1880,” in American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820–1880, ed. Andrew Wilson and Tim Barringer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, and London: Tate Publishing, 2002), 39. See also Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825–1875 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980; 2d ed., 1995); Roderick Frazier Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967; 4th edition, 2001).
18. See William H. Truettner, “Ideology and Image: Justifying Westward Expansion,” in William H. Truettner, ed., The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820–1920 (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, 1991), 27–53. See also W. J. T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
19. Naomi Vine, “Introduction,” in A Certain Slant of Light: The Contemporary American Landscape (Dayton, Ohio: Dayton Art Institute, 1989), 8, 22.
20. Douglas Dreishpoon, Landscape at the Millennium: Installations by Tobi Kahn and Pat Steir (Buffalo, N.Y.: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1999).
21. See David Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), and Daniel James Brown, Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 (New York: Harper/Perennial, 2006).
22. Brown, Under a Flaming Sky. Desolation Sisters was also inspired by Solien’s reading of Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).
23. Author interviews with Solien, October 10, 2009, Minneapolis, and June 21, 2010, Madison, Wisconsin.
24. Gilmore follows ideas of the sublime as developed by Immanuel Kant. See Doing Philosophy at the Movies, 59.
25. Author interview with Solien, October 10, 2009, Minneapolis.
26. From Solien’s proposal to the University of Wisconsin–Madison for faculty grant funds.
Colleen J. Sheehy is director and CEO of the Plains Art Museum. Her books include Highway 61 Revisited: Bob Dylan’s Road from Minnesota to the World, Seed Queen: The Story of Crop Art and the Amazing Lillian Colton, Cabinet of Curiosities: Mark Dion and the University as Installation, and Theatre of Wonder: Twenty-five Years in the Heart of the Beast. She has curated exhibitions on American landscape, Mark Dion, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Wanda Gág.
Only the Lonely
Everyone remembers certain times that have provided lasting visual insights, acting to alter their course. I first became aware of T.L. Solien’s work, his vision, in the mid 1980’s and, in a large sense, I was blind-sided by what I perceived. Here was work that was so idiomatically strange that it seemed to exist without precedent. In the famous documentary accompanying his San Francisco-based retrospective, Philip Guston reminds us, “we don’t come from nowhere,” and, always keeping this in mind, time has helped to clarify for me some of the sources and cultural premonitions of Solien’s work as well as its impact on contemporary painting.
The 1980’s collective art consciousness experienced a dramatic return to painting; it seemed as if more artists were painting, seizing on both the materiality and the descriptive potential of paint. The conceptually minimalist strategies of the late 1960’s and ‘70’s (all that corporate-style modernism that certain museums still collect) seemed so over and new possibilities were seen in a return to, or a reawakening of, a more personal kind of picture -- those introspective viewings often provided in the quieter galleries of many museums. The German neo-expressionists were very visible and, in their intensely gestural figuration they became one big hallmark of western culture’s new look at painting. It was into this climate that T. L. Solien’s work arrived, embedded in a personal, painterly fabric we could recognize, but offering something very different from the essentially redux presentations of the western canon we were then seeing in Euro-NY shows.
What Solien showed us was a more honest look at the autobiographical than modernism had allowed. As he has recently stated, “For the majority of the last 25 years, I have considered the function of painting as an autobiographical construct.” And, “During this 25-year time frame I have attempted to invent a personal and idiosyncratic visual language in which consideration of both the history of Abstraction, and the traditions of Figural Painting are of equal and essential concern.” When it first appeared, his work confirmed what I think many of us knew -- that an idiosyncratic vision does indeed have a subject life all to itself. It has an instinctual profile in its imagery more individually personal than either the contemporary or historical art conversations. Solien’s work demonstrated how emotionally charged the ineffable realizations of style, idiom, and idiosyncrasy itself could be. In an academic sense, we know that the language of form can be learned, and that content is as probable as thought itself, but the particular qualities of what poets call voice and the individual presence of any organism’s character --- these, too, are at the center of what we call “art.” They are “ineffable” because what we call “soul” (think: the blues) cannot be described.
Solien’s premises arise, broadly, from a dovetail of the modernist aesthetic and the idiosyncratic. It is one thing to experience the realization of a personal “voice” in the traditional theater of the western canon and another to realize that voice outside of the canon. Isn’t this really what we mean by the “idiosyncratic” -- that the form has become so personally contrived that the existing communal, visual language does not support it? His landmark paintings and prints described a new, more personal way for autobiographical sources like memory, heritage, and family to contribute to the originality of a vision.
As we now also know, his work was at the forefront of the avalanche of pop-cultural influences affecting artists that lay towards the “outside”: all of the self-taught and naïve visions that we now understand as legitimate sources and which, dare we say, have more importance to many artists working currently than the comparatively simple, modernist identity search in faux-existential laboratories. (Case in point, the inspiration and theme for this year’s Venice Biennale is a work from the American Folk Art Museum’s collection – “The Encyclopedic Palace of the World,” by the self-taught artist Marino Auriti.) Most important, Solien’s work did not claim the same vantage point as the 1960’s pop artists whose work was canonized and sold as they went along; his newer kind of pop-influenced image was local and ephemeral, in source and intent, without the corporate presence of the 1960’s and ‘70’s.
Where others had been harbingers of the outsiders – Vincent van Gogh, Henri Rousseau, Joan Miro, Florine Stettheimer, Jean DuBuffet, Jim Nutt, Philip Guston and many others – Solien was a precursor to others who were also ready to move ahead and regain some of the soul that had been lost to corporate modernism. His timing was perfect; the culture was ready to look beyond the existing canon.
No matter how self-determined they may be, most researchers find that fate often helps to complete their discoveries. Investigators roam around, often repeating themselves, until that one variable episode -- the so-called “ah-hah” moment -- occurs. Conversations with Solien have shown that he wasn’t really consciously thinking of pop culture sources as his iconography initially developed. He did not make the references at first; that is, there was no “strategy” on his part. It was only later that it became obvious to him that his sources were found somewhere beyond the learned image. His own training in canonical modernism was ambushed by a passionate body of autobiographic self-reference and idiosyncrasy.
Works in the present show, “the loneliest gods,” combine the virtuoso washes that have always been the ground in his work with isolated, repetitive cutouts. Since 2004, Solien’s work has included stencil-like, cutout and collaged icons that have permitted another layer to the strange surfaces he has always conjured. This feature of cut-paper first arose in his prints –the monotypes— in response, technically, to the problem of holding color clarity over already developed areas of the surface and, theoretically, asking the viewer to accept what he has called, “a clumsier theatricality in order to believe in the work’s subjective premise.” To paraphrase, an important side effect of the collaged areas appearing as stenciled territories of color clarity is that they achieved the same feeling of direct paint passages, while bringing the sense of an entirely different vocabulary to the image surface. The quirks of his brushwork were amplified when made with the scissors and an unusual crispness came to exist in his images, neither completely graphic nor completely painterly – that is, the “clumsier theatricality” he describes.
I have teased T. L., in his Nordic personage, that his work is a combination of Norwegian rosemaling and the aesthetics of a Viking (oddly, he has never fully enjoyed the brilliance of my humor.) But sometimes casual, silly, even culturally stereotypical comments have veracity in friendship and one may reflect on the systemically decorative way that his recent surfaces are formed in part by an over-the-top array of repetitive sizes and color, and by a steady reflection on his voyager narratives which are thought of, in his words, as “the relationship of the ‘dislocated’ figure to narrative ‘dismemberment.’”
As if his image surfaces weren’t complex enough, this recent use of the cutout has amplified the sense of layered narratives that can seem both post-modern in their accumulation and totally seamless in the way that we expect The American Landscape to be. In a large, important body of work from 2005-2008, based on Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” the cutouts, still in service to the autobiographical constructs of Solien’s life, were hung on the broader narrative of the novel. The “Moby Dick” series took the epic, fictional descriptions and added a subtext of players more precisely generated as, he has said, “surrogates for the contemporary self; the interrelated nature of a dream life and a fictional condition based upon the confluence of multiple modes of representation.”
His current use of fictionally based narratives is more completely in place of the autobiographical, earlier work and has brought a suggestive distance to the expectations of the told story. Solien’s examinations of his own life’s story have been expanded to include signature fictions that broaden the scope of the self-based narrative and suggest a historicity to both the story and the form. In works recently staged against the theme of “Westward Expansion,” there is a wrap-around effect wherein the ephemeral sources and products of the making are proposed as similacra of the historical continuum. One thinks of a Mobius strip or a continuous, time-based video loop, in which premises become contradicted through the passage of the loop and the result is a (literally) twisted paradox, in his case, of both the pop ephemeral and the traditionally historic.
In his present show, Solien has extended his focus beyond the epic profiles of both autobiography and mythic narrative, and the players are given much more specific identities as characters in themselves, beyond the metaphorical references to the self. Images like “L’Etranger” and the wonderful series of jersey images, including “Hoseman’s Jersey,” “Mechanic’s Jersey,” and “Stableman’s Jersey,” reflect a resolution in which found images create new characters for the play – instead of the story acting to realize the characters. “Widow’s Lamb” is a slightly different, but important, inclusion in that it references the Picasso-like, self-portrait series Solien painted in the mid-1990s. This was prior to the cut outs/collages, and “Widow’s Lamb” suggestively pairs as subject some of the brushed surface from the earlier period with a technically more current use of cut outs.
The figurines in “the loneliest god” are, perhaps, more indicative of his present, professed content, and establish identities for characters that exist in sculptured “real time,” susceptible to the wiles of the world – showing the apparent randomness of bruises and chips from the careless, and bird shit from feathered drones (see “Masked Love Bird”). For Solien, these figures exist in a “state of suspended animation” and they certainly look and feel like survivors from lost weekends, a tribe of zombies. He imagines these as having passed through the portal from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional -- a one-way journey from the freer world he calls the “ambiguity of two dimensions.”
Especially poignant and going beyond what his two-dimensional images conjure are the strange, remote presences of “L’Etranger,” “Reaper,” “Widow,” and (my favorite) “Tornado Girl.” These are in collaboration with their own, thrift store beginnings, a land of lost resources that has provided such a strong well for Solien’s extraction of the ephemeral.
Solien’s interest in the importance of ambiguity, as described in the visually two-dimensional, is interesting in light of the larger existential questions his work addresses. The ambiguous nature of the pictorially illusionistic can be an artistic parallel to the anxiety many of us experience in a world culture that is increasingly binary, and where we sense that all things, meaningful and quotidian, are becoming digitalized. The accompanying loss of the freedom to say, “maybe,” or “let me think on that and I’ll get back to you,” is illustrated by the “yes” and “no” formats we experience every day. Solien’s figurines especially, as survivors from their two-dimensional, ambiguous world, portray an isolation and loss of community; this is an estrangement acted out, in their “state of suspended animation,” on his “austere landscape.” These are zombie-wanderers in ambiguity, lost in an Orwellian world.
T. L. Solien’s themes may always include the big, “humanly eternal” problems of isolation, deserted landscapes and death. But one wonders, why is everyone so vulnerable? Are the “invisible agents” that he so often references actually guardian angels? And, most important, how can it be that no one has an interior, ambiguous and non-“interactive,” life anymore?
-- John Dilg
T.L. Solien’s “Boy’s Life” at Bockley Gallery, Minneapolis
Darkness at the Edge of Town
In "Bogusville," former Minneapolis artist T.L. Solien evokes classic Americana with psychologically fraught works.
By MASON RIDDLE, Special to the Star Tribune
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.
Art in America
TL Solien at Luise Ross
Things are a mess in T.L. Solien’s new paintings (all works 2003). In “The Great Skate”, laundry is piled up on the chairs, candles drip wax onto stacked books and leftovers are everywhere. Mail looks as though it has been tossed in the air but is not yet flying in every direction. In “Lifeline II” things get worse. A stack of pancakes with melting butter sits near a slice of watermelon. There’s a dingy teakettle on a dingy table, and the mail that floats in midair is joined by an array of empty take-out containers. Elongated tube socks on a clothesline hang over the scene. Washing has done them little good. They remain stained and grungy.
Solien renders all these elements in his 60 x 72-inch paintings with a luscious mix of oil and enamel paint applied in a studied but never stifling manner. The colors are saturated but toned down: the whites are creamy; the blues heavy with grey, the reds tend toward orange. Where the paint takes over, it creates amorphous shapes that remain on the surface of the canvas. Drips and stains smear contours and extend beyond the bottoms of depicted forms. The works are a bravura performance by this Wisconsin-based artist, whose show at Luise Ross was the first he’d had in 20 years.
The abundance of detail in Solien’s work begs for allegorical interpretation,
But I never found and don’t expect there is a key to unlock specific meanings in the flying mail or the pancakes or the little snowman that also puts in frequent appearances. Solien plops us in a world where much has happened and things are out of control, and all we can do is appreciate the chaos.
Solien titled the exhibition ”Hollow”, which implies a judgment of sorts. But “hollow” can also refer to an isolated rural valley surrounded by woods.
When Solien leaves his oil paintings for his smaller works on paper, this is where he takes us. Such settings seem to offer and opportunity for transformation, as when a person gets lost in the woods in a Shakespeare play or a folk tale. An empty mail carriers bag-perhaps the source of the flying mail in the other works-hangs in the clearing (The Clearing). Solien draws his “Wayfarers” as bunny rabbits, like characters from some half-remembered children’s book. They are embarking on a river journey, their boat crammed with supplies. These works are mysterious and slightly absurd, but they help to ameliorate the despairing tone that creeps into Solien’s larger paintings.
Charles Dee Mitchell
T.L. Solien: Cemetery Stack'
At Clough-Hanson Gallery
By Fredric Koeppel
September 9, 2005
The notion of "stacking" in T.L. Solien's exhibition, "Cemetery Stack," works literally and figuratively. Solien, who teaches painting at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, employs stacks of things in his paintings, such as the tall, rather repulsive stack of pancakes, dripping with butter and fruit, that replaces a man's head (complete with tiny hat) in "Cemetery Stack" and the pile of melting, dripping books in "Night Rider." His method, also, is to "stack" images in what seems a hodgepodge of pop culture images, everyday objects and personal associations in ambiguous or unreadable arrangements.
The results are mysterious, funny, grotesque and frightening.
"Night Rider," for example, features a Disneyfied rabbit, all buckteeth, plump cheeks and huge liquid eyes, driving a baby carriage through a fractured, nightmarish urban setting. A happy camper, the rabbit, who is bald and lacks proper bunny ears -- hmmm, perhaps the creature is actually a chipmunk -- seems oblivious to his burned face. This night rider steers past anonymous lighted windows, broken (and highly stylized) trees, that stack of ruined books. Perhaps his goal is the white towel trimmed in red that hangs from a black line; perhaps he will use the towel to wipe the soot from his face or clean the city, which seems to be in dire circumstances. In any case, the sense of emergency and dread is manifest.
"Wayfarers," mixed media on paper, must allude to George Caleb Bingham's iconic painting, circa 1845, "Fur Traders on the Missouri." The canoe in that serene work holds a cat, a boy and an older man who paddles the vessel and gazes ambivalently at the viewer; it has been replaced, in Solien's adaptation, by a crowded jumble of cartoon rabbit heads, free-floating eyes, a weird dark creature with a bulbous head, and a trove of unexplainable shapes and forms, mechanical thingamajigs and sordid detritus that lend new emphasis to the term "the anxiety of objects" or at least to that truism, "You can't take it with you," whatever it is. This crowded boat -- some of the huddled material ("give me your huddled, teeming masses") is falling or dripping overboard -- seems destined not to complete its journey.
Solien doesn't let go of a good image. For example, the wooden leg with a burned foot in "Small Room" also shows up in "Parson's Table," the most elegant piece in the exhibition. The simplest work, the mixed media piece "Spouter Breakfast," uses a central image of a pile of ham slices on a plate. Sure enough, one of those occupies a space at the bottom of "Parson's Table." While "Wayfarers" contains a bedlam of an overloaded boat on a river, "The Clearing" (which has no river) offers a boat bearing the head of one of Picasso's fauns.
The pervasive image, however, is the illuminated four-pane window. A couple of pieces have only one of these almost heraldic devices; in others, they're scattered over the picture plane. Oddly, we see nothing through these windows; it seems as if they illuminate nothing, or perhaps we're just not admitted to the interiors they guard.
Nine works make this a spare exhibition, giving visitors to Clough-Hanson the chance to stand back or peer closely without feeling that too much material calls for attention. That factor is important because Solien is a splendid painter whose work requires contemplation, not just for elucidation but for technical study. Any piece in the show serves as a model for virtuoso brushwork, for the appropriately thin or thick application of pigment, for over- and under-painting and layering.
Solien likes to position the juxtaposed and congested images in his work centrally, faux-cubist manner, and in the foreground against a single colored backdrop that's varied enough in hue and texture not to seem an easy out. In "Night Rider," this backdrop, a sort of mottled dirty bluish-gray, gives the picture a crepuscular aspect that perfectly suits its aura of twilit terror, while the brownish-burnt orange background of "Cemetery Stack" highlights, like a wall in a cheap motel, the conjunction of tasteless appetite and ritualized death.
One uses "perhaps" frequently in writing about T.L. Solien's work because it resists interpretation. At the same time, the artist's breadth of allusion makes us feel as if he presents a slide show of his dreams with the innocence of a curious yet troubled child.
From the collages of the Dadaists to the accumulations of Rauschenberg and the angry, romantic grafitti of Jean-Michel Basquiat, we are accustomed to the fragmentation and the mixing of high and popular culture as a way of expressing the chaos and consternation of the 20th Century and, now, the 21st. It's refreshing, then, to encounter an artist who does so with such thoughtfulness, spontaneity and playfulness.
In "Small Room," with references to "modern" sculpture and artist Jean Dubuffet (and Santa Claus, deflated), is a sideboard with a runner that ends in a monogrammed letter "A" (not scarlet); the letter is broken clean through. Does this refer to Art in its broken state? If Art is indeed broken, T.L. Solien applies richly metaphorical and revelatory patches and bandages.
-- Fredric Koeppel, 529-2376
T.L. Solen’s life journey has been one of reflection and self-isolation from the sugar-coated idealism, unavoidably defined by his native American culture.
If taken superficially, Solen would give the impression of a depressive and negative thinker. But to the contrary, we find him enlightening, brutally honest and inspiring with his blunt idea of realism.
We are all Tom Joad, from the “Grapes of Wrath”, with all of our “baggage” strapped upon a jalopy held together with chewing gum and baling wire, trying to circumvent those who do not want us, and hoping for that place…that state of being, where we can be fruitful, appreciated, and ourselves. Very few have arrived...I am defined by Americana, unavoidably.
Solen promised to intrigue us, here we go...
55 – I get a perception of America’s Great Depression in your work. Is this something you are
referencing from the past, present, future or all of them?
T.S - I’ve spent more than a decade studying the volatility of the American Experience, from the mid 19th century to the present. This history became more than a pedestrian interest to me as I was researching this era for a large body of work which responded to Melville’s Moby Dick and Sena Jeter Naslund’s contemporary novel, Ahab’s Wife: The Star Gazer. I fictively extended the life of Ahab’s widow, and described the pivotal occurrences in her post-Ahab life within the larger cultural expansion of the American West. I allowed her narrative to be extended well beyond the years of a normal lifetime, as I was so fascinated with the history I was reading. This was not the history that I was taught in American public educational institutions. Besides, I can do anything I want to do in this fictive world, and no one can tell me it’s wrong. Subsequently, I have come to think of Time, in terms of a context for fictive action, to be fluidly unspecific, or perhaps, “cyclical” in a way that allows us to forget everything that should have taught us culturally. Lessons we would never want to repeat, if at all possible. Painting provides a metaphor for the Present, but the depiction of the Present, is utterly unnecessary, to me.
55 – Your use of colour is striking and kind of childlike, with an almost post-war graphic nature in many of the works.
T.S - There is a great range, realistically, in my use of colour. The backgrounds, or contexts in
which my figural images exist, are typically quite muted, delicately complex and atmospheric.
I spend a lot of effort creating this indeterminate space, from the flatness that any painter is given as a starting point. I apply colour choices, tinted washes, and glazes until flatness becomes a temperamental atmosphere. I would equate this process with the building of a moody theatrical stage, in waiting for the actors to appear. Certainly I describe the figures in somewhat ‘loud’ color choices, and perhaps this colour usage is typical of the limited palette given to most children in a set of basic art supplies. My colour usage, in the context of figuration, is intended to construct and conceal the figure, simultaneously. I am interested in constructing an overall experience, which requires the viewer to make an ‘investment’ in the conceptually driven and sensually attenuated visual event, that is the painting. I hope that my usage of colour is ‘comprehensive’ and that its role, alongside the role of ‘form’, is to provide the stage, the actor, the action, and the potential for an ‘afterlife’, existing in the mind of the viewer, for as long as possible.
1950’s cartoons, late New York School Modernism, consumer packaging, mid-century signage,
and figurative product iconography all influence the graphic nature of my work. I am particularly influenced by the iconic cartoonist, Tex Avery. His methods of using figural forms, as near mid- century Modernist abstractions, against a less stylised and more highly illusionistic contextual description, enables an amazing special construct to exist, against all odds of doing so.
55 – The use of clowns - or the identity of someone masked as a clown - can be seen in a large number of the paintings. Switching between playful and calm to threatening and sinister. The character is an intriguing impression, found in the shadows, and not fully gauged. What are you expressing?
T.S - I would argue that I am not painting ”clowns” per se, but am creating a character that might be described as ‘clown-ish’. Not quite a clown, and not quite fully ‘human’, but a ‘creature’ capable of expressing an existential condition within any given painting. The human condition is one of desperation, frustration, elusive and ephemeral successes, failure, unrequited desire, faithlessness, fear, anxiety, depression and hopelessness, co-mingled with just enough satisfaction, anticipation and joy to keep one from putting a gun to one’s head each evening.
Of course, there is not much of an audience for this position, so this premise must be contextualized within a greater ‘seduction’. That I must bury this level of despair within a semi-hypnotic, or semi- entertaining, “bait and switch” visual system. This visual system is a kind of camouflage, but also the means by which the characters, suspended within this system, approach a kinetic reality.
55 – You proclaim yourself as a Depressive Painter. Why is this?
T.S - I meant the term to be a tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation, but it seems to reflect the attitudinal response from the audience that is aware of my work, but not engaged by it. Apparently this is a sizeable audience and they describe my work as depressing.
Truthfully, I have been diagnosed with Chronic Depression, and have been medicated for this condition for more than a decade. Perhaps this admission contextualises all of my previous answers to the questions you have posed. A great many people have hoped that I could be happier, but I think I’m too much of a realist to become that. I regret disappointing them. It makes me sad.
55 – What are you comments on society today in America?
T.S - If you ask me, America is in a very deep and volatile crisis, pitting fanatical Christian conservatives against liberal leaning social progressives. ‘FanCons’ hope for a return to God- centric pre-1960’s value systems, and are willing to reverse civil rights legislation, destroy the middle class, balkanise society, destroy the environment, disenfranchise women and minorities. And in fact, kill, to achieve that end at the expense of lives and accomplishments of intelligent, compassionate, empathetic, and otherwise reasonable people, i.e. social progressives.
Ten years ago, the Mike Judge film Idiocracy debuted suggesting the future culture of America to be illiterate, intolerant, ignorant of science and the history of scientific discovery, and consistent in mocking everything we once thought to be intelligent and enduring cultural developments, with
a ‘democracy’ in which popular culture is the arbiter of all Value. Sadly, I think ‘idiocracy’ will be recognised, eventually, as a precocious ‘documentary’, which very accurately characterised the redefining of American society.
55 – You are from North Dakota. I get the feeling of isolation and a bleakness dressed up in colour. What would you say about your upbringing and its translation in to you works?
T.L - I come from a geography of absolute flatness. Often it is very difficult to gauge distances, scales, and structural relationship with any accuracy. Little exists to make accurate comparisons. I think these qualities are imbued in the work I make. Often, one was the only human in the visible,
360 degree landscape. Alone-ness was simply a fact, and eventually, a state of mind. One often felt “watched” by an unseen presence, whose expectations were far more than one was capable of meeting…hence, failure, shame, regret, and self-loathing, was the subtext of ones life experience. This attitude is often seen as the influence of a Nordic genetic code, but it has every bit as much to
do with a subliminal response to the reality of the landscape of the Great Plains.
55 – Your characters are almost nomadic and lost. Why, and is this how you feel?
T.L - I lived a ‘nomadic’ existence, growing up. I lived in 62 different houses in six different states, before I was 21. Everything became transient to me, including people…or should I say especially people. The most satisfying experiences in that life took place in the privacy of my bedroom, or, most often, in my imagination. I have 38 years of marriage and two grown children, which grounds me in love and structure. Beyond that…Lost…yes, I feel lost.
Solien, Nordqvist Paintings Hint at Dark Stories
The ruins of time and domesticated dreams currently greet visitors to the Tory Folliard Gallery. T.L. Solien and Erika Nordqvist straddle autobiographical narrative and novelistic fantasy in their concurrent solo exhibits.
Like Bob Dylan’s grimy epic “Desolation Row,” or the gothic stories of Flannery O’Connor, Solien’s paintings carry a humorous, tragic mystery. Nordqvist, in turn, creates airy, anxious drawings of cloudy non-events, figures betraying sidelong glances and a thoughtful inwardness.
“The Foreseeable Past” examines Solien’s themes of doomed pilgrimages and dark deeds with considerable power. His protagonists are worn and weary toys, ornaments and cartoon characters. Their bleak and ruined bodies gesture and flail for meaning and enlightenment that evades them. The artist poses them in compositions derived from the Old Masters and invents new narratives. His title suggests a world view we can see mirrored within the paintings.
The annunciation of the Virgin Mary is a biblical theme painted by Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and many others. Its composition has been codified and repeated. It shows the angel Gabriel gesturing toward Mary, the young woman bowing in supplication or swooning in fear. The balletic rendition ascribed to the workshop of Paolo Veronese appears to be referenced within Solien’s inverted interpretation entitled “The Renunciation II.”
In it we see not a heavenly messenger, but a dirty clown-cum-angel doing somersaults in a moronic courtship. Tiny black wings flap impotently as the clown, clad in a tunic of Mondrianic abstraction, rolls and tumbles about the seated figure of Mary. She, in turn, does not look well. Slumped over with stitches and X’s for eyes, Mary appears to be asleep, dead or just too stoned to care. Her blue lips, hoisted guitar and red dress point to a wayfarer’s life on the road, of one too many mornings. At her side, a peppy dog benignly smiles away, and perfectly echoes the small Spaniel that appears in Veronese’s version.
The character of Casanova appears prominently in Solien’s work as a dreary doppelganger doll with bilious red face and pith helmet. In a tightly packed vignette, the doll bleats “Casanova?,” in a word bubble toward a shapely, anthropomorphic flower vase. The vase in turn addresses a jutting and phallic red skyscraper with the declaration “Casanova.” The scene is worthy of a bathroom scrawl, but retains sophisticated formal command and vision. I was entranced with this seeming paradox again and again. As the character of the courting figure is repeated, it begins to describe an allegory of the artist and art itself.
The power of T.L. Solien’s work stems from his ability to meld narrative, surface and mood. Solien scratches, layers and spray paints on his work. This accumulation gives the paintings a cruddy, antiqued quality, as if they were found in an old barn. They feel like the antique toys and baubles that he employs as subjects. His additional layering of art historical reference and storytelling make the paintings cohere into lyrical gestalt. Philip Guston and Dana Schutz on a good day are among Solien’s milieu.
In an adjoining gallery, whimsical and poignant drawings by Erika Nordqvist utilize the human figure in magical realist vignettes in her exhibit “Bye Bye Dirt, Bye Bye Worry.”
Domesticity, folk art and fable combine in these drawings to create psychologically charged near-dramas. I say that because Nordqvist’s scenes seem to take place between events, seemingly just before or after something will happen. A young woman seems about to cut a lock of her own hair while another girl, in glasses and wolf sweatshirt, quietly watches and unbuttons her pants. A large TV dominates the composition but is turned off. A drawer full of folded clothes sits on the floor, along with a sculpture of a girl riding a horse. The scene remains inscrutable, as are the stoic attitudes of the two women. The narrative seems mundane and charged all at once.
Animals move in and out of Nordqvist’s work. They appear as pets, toys, on clothing and in the imagined world. Five adolescents ride sawhorses rigged up with English saddles. They appear to be bored with this play-acting, leaning on elbows or gazing distractedly out at the viewer. Portraits of people with tiger heads are displayed on the wall.
The drawings are timorous and questing. They seem indeterminate and scratchy, echoing the averted glances and unsettled actions of the figures themselves. In elemental graphite and watercolor, they are humble and very beautiful. Nordqvist’s work is established within a contemporary canon of Swedish artists including Mamma Andersson and Jockum Nordström.
“T.L. Solien: The Foreseeable Past” and “Erika Nordqvist: Bye Bye Dirt, Bye Bye Worry” are on view through May 27 at Tory Folliard Gallery, 233 N. Milwaukee St. For information visit toryfolliard.com.
Rafael Francisco Salas is an artist, an associate professor of art at Ripon College and a regular Art City contributor.