T.L. Solien

John C. Stoller & Co.

T L. Solien’s paintings and prints have always boiled up from a deep cauldron of personal experiences. Assuming an extremely personal narrative format, the content of his work is obscure, if not confounding, to those unfamiliar with themes or events in Solien’s private life. Although his cryptic iconography of mysterious orbs and pictographs and his motley cast of characters are psychologically resonant, little information is released to the uninitiated observer.

Solien’s recent paintings, prints, and painted-metal sculptures reveal thematic and stylistic changes, although he continues to work in a highly considered surrealist mode. What were previously conceived as spare tableaux populated with a minimum of figurative and abstract elements are now dense psychological landscapes loaded edge to edge with a dizzying number of forms. In addition, Solien has intensified his palette of orange, yellow, green, and blue to a feverish pitch, further heightening the work’s expressive complexity.

Also altered is the narrative thrust of Solien’s work. Gone are the familiar images of, among others, the Tin Man, the Straw Ox, and the Fool that, in the past, he combined and recombined to act out private narratives. While such hallmark icons as the bat wings, devil’s head, and colored orbs remain, his sadly humorous coterie of actors has been supplanted by a single disembodied head or a plethora of bottles and pears. With this elimination of characters, Solien’s narrative has been distilled into a single idea or issue.

Solien’s current work can be divided into two separate but related genres—still lifes and landscapes. The former explore male and female sexuality through the images of bottles and pears, respectively In Bottle of Vinegar, Bottle of Ice, 1985, two bottles and two pears are poised on a tabletop in an environment of brightly colored orbs. However, its lively, cartoonesque style is subverted by the head of the devil, who peers from behind a curtain. More disturbing and psychologically powerful are the five untitled “landscape” paintings from 1986 that depict the head of Christ in various stages of decomposition. In each, Solien grapples with issues of faith, Christianity, and morality, as well as his ambivalent desire to both embrace and reject Christ as teacher, healer, and gatekeeper to life everlasting.

Particularly arresting is Solien’s diptych The Missing Teeth of Christ (The Voyage Darkens), 1985. Here, the blood-red, dissipated head of Christ, missing half his teeth, is joined by the devil, a ship in a bottle, thorny vegetation, pictographic symbols, and the ubiquitous floating orbs. Teeth, a recurring symbol in Solien’s earlier work, now signify the power of Christ, and their theft by the devil, the diminished influence of religion in contemporary society. This preoccupation with the relevance of belief systems is continued in Solien’s striking enamel-on-steel sculpture The Tree of Life, 1985–86. Here, a pelican bearing a drop of blood on its white breast—a medieval metaphor symbolizing the self-sacrifice of Christ—is skillfully integrated with colorful abstract elements into a compositional tour de force.

In the best of this work, Solien has established an emotional and psychological tension between figurative and abstract elements that transcends the narrative impact of his earlier work. While content is still elusive, this tension is felt as a manifestation of Solien’s personal investigations into the soul of man. Unlike much art of the ’80s, Solien’s ruminations are sincere. Their success does not hinge on the fashionable themes of sex, violence, urban disintegration, or artistic appropriation, but, rather, on the meshing of personal issues and an extroverted style.

Mason Riddle

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