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What’s at Stake?

From huge sculptures to graphic photographs to beautiful paintings, the artwork shown in the Shen never ceases to amaze. The Shen’s newest installation from artist Stephen Sollins is just as thought-provoking, impressive, and awe-inspiring as those before it.

The show, titled Timeline, opened on Tuesday, December 11. It is a collection of Mr. Sollins’s previous works, dating back to the beginning of his career in 1997. The exhibit consists of seven different projects. Although he uses several unique mediums, most of his work explores the ideas of reduction and the absence of noise. As a passionate musician, Mr. Sollins often includes some musical element in his work. Many of pieces focus on the negative space in both the visual and melodic components. They use thin, smooth lines and simple shapes; there are no dramatic, cluttered paintings or harsh contrasts.

“It’s a somewhat typical way of working for me that I’ll find something in the world where I am interested in showing people what it looks like,” said Mr. Sollins. “My method is to strip away all the distracting information so people can see what I’m pointing at.”

Mr. Sollins’s most recent project featured in the show, titled “Song Forms,” not only incorporates his interest in music, but plays on this idea. All the pieces in the project are embroideries on vintage bed linen of typical financial documents, such as an IRS W2 form or a bank statement. Mr. Sollin’s strips all the information away so you are just left with an embroidery of the basic layout of the document. The piece featured in the Shen is based on the graphic layout of a balance sheet from a Fortune 500 company.

The name “Song Forms” comes from the idea of graphic score—the representation of a musical score with an image or drawing outside the realm of traditional music notation. Every one of the pieces in the project can be played.

The sculptures in the middle of the gallery have a direct connection to both music and silence: They are glass castings of trombone and trumpet mutes. “I am interested in when you start with a lot of information and you make less and less,” said Mr. Sollins. “Musically I am as interested in the silences as I am in the notes.”

In addition, the featured pieces titled “The Cover Drawings” similarly highlight the silences in music. Mr. Sollins made pencil tracings on a blank canvas of every rest denoted on the sheet music of popular songs by Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

He attributes his interest in silence and stripping things away in some part to his upbringing. “I don’t think that my biography is necessary to understand and have an idea of what my work might be about, but I think my biography is critical to why I make it,” explained Mr. Sollins. “I grew up in a family that had a lot of silence in the house, and there were a lot of things that were not discussed, and that was such a fundamental part of my childhood, especially going to my grandfather’s house and being there. It often felt like nobody was saying anything. That experience of silence and things left unsaid was really foundational for me. A lot of my work is really about that question. Can you take a silence and make something that communicates when it has no words?”

Along with being an artist, Mr. Sollins is the father of a Packer senior, Jonah Sollins-Devlin (‘19). Jonah, an aspiring artist and a talented musician, looks up to his father. The two have been playing music together at home since Jonah was young and hope to one day collaborate in a more professional setting.

When asked to comment on his dad’s exhibit, Jonah responded, “My dad has always made art that deliberately forgoes traditional mediums like painting or photography, and I think it will be cool for Packer’s art students to see how they can make art without the mediums they learn in class.”

Stephen Sollins’s show should not be missed. Each piece challenges the viewer and has clear relevance to our lives as busy students and artists alike. Mr. Sollins leaves us with this: no matter what you’re doing, you need continuously ask yourself “what’s at stake?” And, if the answer to that question is nothing than it is not worth doing.

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