Toward the Setting Sun
New work by T. L. Solien
September 22, 2013 – January 12, 2014
Opening reception Saturday, September 21, 7:30 – 10:30 p.m.
Moby-Dick marathon read and free admission
Sunday, September 22, noon – 10 p.m.
It’s commonly recognized that the novel Moby-Dick is-but-isn’t about the hunt for a white whale. Herman Melville’s classic American novel, set amid the context of whaling in the Northeastern United States, draws its value from its use of metaphor to explore broader issues of spirituality, social status, and psychology.
Moby-Dick, and it’s sense of metaphorical depth, found an eager companion in artist T. L. Solien. For the past few years, the Moorhead native has used the novel as a departure point for his art and teaching work, expanding its themes to explore his own psychology, the social psychology of the region, and the broader history of the American West. Toward the Setting Sun, a new exhibition of Solien’s work from this period, makes its debut at Plains Art Museum with an opening reception on Saturday evening.
Solien read the novel for the first time in 2004 and found the book to be “utterly transformative.”
“Moby-Dick brought my life in focus,” Solien said, “I found a sympathetic echo to my own voice in that text.” In particular, he said he readily identified with the character of Ahab, the captain of the whaling ship Pequod driven to the point of madness in his quest to harpoon the white whale.
Ahab’s story begins to sound a lot like his own story, in fact.
“For all these years, I was trying to create a life for myself and for my family as an artist. When you commit yourself to that, it means doing so at a cost of a lot of other things. It requires a lot of isolation, literal isolation, that extends into the studio and out of it into how I think, where I think, and who’s compromised from that,” Solien said, comparing it to the years of hard work and isolation Ahab would have felt.
“Ahab is as compulsive as me and a bit of a lunatic as well. I loved his character and felt sympathy for him. There’s some aspect of cruelty to Ahab that is also in me, as much as I’ve tried to cast out that demon.”
And similar to Ahab, Solien found a fixation that began to take over his creative life. His interest was stoked after reading book Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, which tells the story of Una Spencer, the woman Ahab left behind as a whaling captain. Solien said he was “stunned” to see a contemporary writer work within Melville’s vernacular and tell a different side of Moby-Dick. Taking that license and running with it, he began to merge the character dynamics of the novel with the 19th-century American West, a place (and concept) that also held personal meaning for him as the place where his ancestors settled.
After that, Solien said, his entire working life shifted into a “massive research project” as he pored over regional history, his ancestral history, and topics like 19th-century natural disasters, the labor movement, and the material culture of settlers in the west. In lieu of a white whale, Solien had begun searching for his place along a continuum of the last two centuries of regional history, a history that paints a darker picture of American western expansion than we’re used to.
“Embedded in that plot,” he said of America’s rush to settle and exploit the West, “are the lives of millions of people, people trying to make ends meet, make a life for themselves, and make a life richer than what they had. I could see that goal in my own ancestors.”
Plains Art Museum Director Colleen Sheehy said that Toward the Setting Sun speaks volumes about Solien’s process and how artists filter their influences.
“One of the most astonishing things about this project is the realization of how an artist gets inspiration,” Sheehy said. “It’s hard to have fresh and interesting things to say as an artist and have them be relevant to viewers.”
Having the exhibition open in Fargo at Plains Art Museum, Solien said, is “uncanny.” Fargo was a central area in his family’s settlement and historically serves as a gateway to the American West. Both Solien and Sheehy were thrilled to see this new body of work direct conversation in the community toward its history and to Moby-Dick itself.
“This exhibition is so dense and has a lot of ideas,” Sheehy said, “it’s been great to make the connections we’ve made with other arts organizations and the public libraries.”
Sheehy acknowledged Solien’s work on Toward the Setting Sun is a cut above anything else in his career.
“(Solien) has always had this personal element to his work that dealt with his own psyche, but I think with this exhibition, he’s taken a step beyond by accessing these cultural touchstones,” Sheehy said.
Even Solien notices something different about his new work.
“As I started putting these pieces on paper, I was entering territory that was mind-bogglingly unusual for me. It was like watching my own hands make the work of another artist. At first, I was even leery of this. It takes an artist a long time to get to a place that internal.”
Images, from top: T. L. Solien, Standing Masthead, 2005. Mixed media on paper, 31 3⁄4 x 38 1⁄4 in.; Re-enactor, 2011, Mixed media on paper, 8 x 9 1⁄2 in.; T. L. Solien, C-Train, 2010, mixed media on paper, 30 x 36 in. All images courtesy of the artist and Plains Art Museum.