Fargo-Moorhead native T.L. Solien’s work has been shown at some of the nation’s most prestigious art shows and museums, including the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Art Museum in New York, Avant-Garde in the 80s at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and a solo show at the Walker Art Center, as well as shows at Fargo’s Plains Art Museum, most recently in 2013.
The Nemeth Art Center in Park Rapids, Minn., may not have the name recognition of these other institutions, but for the 72-year-old artist, showing in the heart of Lakes Country feels like home.
His current show at the Nemeth, “T.L. Solien: See the Sky” is about an hour’s drive from his former home and studio near Pelican Rapids where he created much of the work that made him an art world star in the 1980s and early ’90s. Two crashes in the art market prompted him to take up jobs as a college art teacher, and in 2020 he retired after teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 23 years.
The show is on display through July 17 and the painter will hold a self-portrait workshop and a gallery talk throughout the day on Saturday, July 10, at the Nemeth.
“See the Sky” is a mid-career survey curated by Christopher Atkins pulling heavily from the last 20 years, with nothing from the 1990s, due largely to which pieces were accessible.
Solien is known for his large — many of the pieces in this show are about 6-by-7 feet — boldly colored paintings. During much of the ’90s, he taught a year or two at three universities before finding a home at University of Wisconsin. All that moving means Solien doesn’t have many paintings from that period at his current studio in Madison, where works were selected for the show. The pieces from that period he does have on hand have been taken off stretchers and rolled into long tubes.
“I must have eight rolls of paintings made in the ’80s and ’90s, now stored in my new studio, that I will probably never see again in what remains of my lifetime,” he says.
That may sound ominous, until you look at the artist’s body of work, which can often be interpreted as dark, or at least always mysterious. He’s never been inclined to tell a linear story, but has used icons and images like floating heads in the 1980s as characters in vignettes. His work in the 2000s gave those characters bodies and clown-like faces in swirling settings of shapes.
“I would say that in the ’80s the color I used was influenced by the seasonal changes in the landscape around our farmstead near Pelican Rapids, and by the muted primary colors of the illustrations in the vintage children’s books I read to my children when they were little,” he explains.
“I’ve always wanted my paintings to be ‘confrontational,’ to make the subject of the painting, ultimately, the viewer’s psychological relationship with the painting being viewed. Most recently, the color has become much more intense, almost dayglow on occasion, as I try to amp up the visual presence of the paintings to compete most effectively with all of the other visual distractions we face in our lives on a daily basis,” he says. “This battle for the viewer’s attention becomes more and more difficult to win as time goes by, and we are challenged by the vast volume of images that pass in front of us each minute, hour, and day, and at a velocity never possible in previous communication technologies. At times it feels like being in a gunfight with a pea shooter, while your opponent is packing lasers of death.”
On his Instagram page, the artist will post photos of his work throughout the years, images that intrigue him as well as a newer project, “Ten Rooms,” in which he includes photos of once vibrant, now abandoned spaces taken from real estate listings.
“I like to follow Instagram feeds that are based around the idea of the ‘fixer-upper,’ and I am also haunted by images of houses that continue to carry the sensation of the lives lived within them, long after the former residents have left the property to others, or to the ravages of time,” he says. “I think that’s what attracts me to works of art as well, the sense that something essential is transmitted by the evidence we leave, or will leave behind.”
Solien is in the early stages of his next big project, which involves Island Park in Fargo. The painter can’t reveal too much now as it’s still in the early stages of development, but says he was brought in by landscape architect Tom Osland, known for his work on the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center and the 35W Bridge Memorial, also in Minneapolis.
“Subsequently the project has become much, much larger in scope, with the end result being the very thoughtful transformation of Island Park to become a cultural destination intended to bring wide notoriety to the cities of Fargo-Moorhead, as well as preserve the uniqueness of the park landscape, tree canopy, and recreational opportunity currently existing there,” he says.
The metro area and the nearby lakes area remain closely linked to the artist in much of his work, present, past and future.
“I’ve now spent more of my life living and working elsewhere, but that is not a choice that I would have willingly made, if I would have had another option at the time.” Solien says. “Minnesota has always been my emotional home, and the F-M area (where) that impulse is felt most powerfully. Leaving our farmstead near Pelican Rapids in the mid-early 90’s, for economic reasons, was one of the most painful experiences of my life, and certainly my family’s life. Everyone survived just fine, but it’s still a deep wound for me.”