As an artist I started out painting land and seascapes until I discovered portraiture. Over a period of several years, while my portrait paintings matured, I experimented with incorporating symbols into my art. I soon began to develop a painting style with symbols that has become my own.
While painting portraits it became clear to me that developing a relationship with the subject was an important part of the process in making a painting successful. I found that the more I learned about the subject the better my finished work became. Coincidentally, as I began to experiment with symbols I also discovered that I was able to share my relationship and understanding of the subject with the audience. As a result each painting has their own unique story to tell. I have created this through research and personal experience with each piece.
My use of symbols began while studying at Yale University. Later, my ability to understand how to utilize color in this form was forged with my experience as a young boy working at my father's color separation printing company. The combination of these experiences gave me the foundation to create very complex and very realistic paintings at the same time.
In my paintings the subjects are iconic in who they are or what they represent and, since our culture has become so absorbed in celebrities, they are often the focus of my work. As the audience studies the painting and its symbols a story unfolds like a puzzle.
A visitor to Karl Soderlund’s studio is likely to be awestruck by his over seven-foot-high oil paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Audrey Hepburn and Albert Einstein, among others.
In 2010, these paintings formed the basis for his exhibition at the National Arts Club in New York City, entitled Iconic Obsessions. The title points to the habit of elevating famous people to superhuman status. They become gods in our minds; however, they are also commodities, in that reproductions of these people are as venerated as any religious icon. Perhaps it is our obsession with the lives of such icons, so often reflected in the vanity magazines and celebrity television shows, that Soderlund is masterfully revealing through his oil paintings.
For Soderlund, however, the portrait is a point of departure. He enjoys going beyond it to include references to personal history that is ultimately revealed in the painting. His paintings become visual biographies of the triumphs and hardships of their subjects. For instance, Muhammad Ali’s portrait includes the Olympic gold medal that he angrily threw into the Ohio River after an encounter with white racists, and butterflies and bees reflecting Ali’s famous comment, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Soderlund enjoys watching viewers identify the symbols through out his paintings, and considers it a personal triumph to have successfully combined the elements into a holistic visual experience. Marilyn Monroe is represented by her familiar iconic stance over a subway grate with her white dress swirling up around her and champagne glasses nestled throughout. Audrey Hepburn has intricate images of children articulating her form; a tondo of a woman holding a child refers to her work as UNICEF’s spokesperson. For Paul Newman there are racecars and racing helmets, as well as images of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and his treasured performing awards.
Whatever his subject, Karl Soderlund is obsessed by portraiture. His signature style of embedding associated images throughout the canvas continues his subjects’ personal stories. Perhaps they would be complete as portraits themselves. For Soderlund, however, that is just the beginning. His Iconic Obsessions resonate as masterfully painted portraits. As Soderlund states, these icons “withstand the test of time.”
Laura Einstein, Venu Magazine