Anthony Sonnenberg | Hephaestus’ New Forge
At a storefront on the edge of Seattle’s old Georgetown neighborhood, where bars, antique stores and bike shops collide with the still flourishing remnants of the city’s industrial past, I am greeted by a large man, smiling and buoyant, who wears suspenders and a plaid shirt. The address is home to the studios of some of Seattle’s most prominent artists, but this afternoon Tony Sonnenberg is the only one at work.
Once inside, we wander past a row of identical, nondescript plywood doors behind which many significant works of visual art have been created prior to being shown in galleries and museums across the country. Entering one of these wood-grain portals, we find ourselves in Sonnenberg’s studio. Amidst the various hand tools and bags of raw materials scattered about the room, we are surrounded by a constellation of painstakingly-crafted gold metal flowers that will someday be appropriated into larger composite pieces. Right away we discover that we are in the presence of an artist who is unafraid to cross into the taboo realm of gilding the proverbial lily.
Placed upon the rough plywood shelves that stand against the walls are a series of amorphous, pumpkin-sized ceramic sculptures glazed in somber blues, greens and browns, some flecked thoroughly in gold. As we sit down, the artist’s youthful, bearded countenance bestows friendship, humanity and goodwill upon the visitor.
Nothing in today’s art world may evoke the grand tradition of European still life painting more than the overripe splendor of sculptor Tony Sonnenberg’s fecund, arresting candelabras, which resound with their ancient echoes of temporality and death. In their crumbling, burnished presences we are able to connect our own era with the observational sensibilities of old masters who once could represent the world and passage of time in a seemingly random assemblage of familiar objects. Sonnenberg’s pieces – modest in scale but monumental in feeling – are both alchemical fusions of unstable matter and contemplative subjects of accumulation, erosion and decay. While they evoke the richness of an art historical past, it is in their precarious nature that we recognize them as products of our own uncertain age – fluid, vulnerable and on the verge of disintegration.
Rounding up an array of discarded figurines and ornaments that were once created as distorted, cartoonish or oddly mannered specimens of plant and animal life (each possessing its own range of associations in both Eastern and Western art and popular culture), Sonnenberg covers, obscures, molds and forges them into new matter and form. His resulting amalgams of these now barely discernible life forms carry and transmute the combined essences of their component parts into tonally unified sculptures that are both tragic and comic; equal parts volatility and serenity.
While still in his mid-twenties, the Texas-born Sonnenburg has the somewhat wearily amused yet attentive sensibility of a mature artist and much older man. When looking at his work, all overwrought sensuality entwined with an ever-present understanding of mortality, I am frequently reminded of the 17th Century English poet Andrew Marvell and his most famous poem, with its determined, lustful exhortation to live and well-reasoned reminder of death’s certainty: Andrew Marvell: To his Coy Mistress. “Had we but world enough and time.” (Cavalier poem, Carpe Diem)
Sonnenburg’s decision to render these sculptures as candelabras further demonstrates his sophistication as an artist. As both a lover of materials and a keen investigator of genre, he refuses to engage in the tiresome debates about the definitions of “art” and “craft” that his work suggests by unabashedly turning them into functional, if outdated light fixtures. As the lit wax drips down upon his own molten forms, he takes us back to his process, methods and inspirations.
December 12, 2012
Things that are not what they appear to be fascinate me.
Having been born and raised in a tiny Texas town, where secrets were impossible to keep and gossip was the main form of social currency, I learned from a young age to always look beneath the surface and be suspicious of anything that seems too good to be true. I realized early on that the truth existed neither in the fictions that one sees on the surface nor in the facts that lurk below, but rather in the constantly ongoing negotiation between the two.
My work is a continuation of this negotiation. The work is highly variable in regards to media, scale and materials but it is united by a rigorous multi-layer conceptual construction wherein the main narratives are woven into and placed behind superficial semi-transparent ones. Therefore, while on the surface the works may appear to be solely concerned with frivolities of decadence and technical virtuosity, at their core they are driven by the entire unknowable and tragic nature of the human experience. This driving force is not one that viewers are eager to engage with and so the beauty of the surface is needed to bridge the gap between what I would like to communicate to the viewer and what the viewer is willing to receive.
The works selected for this exhibition are, as the title suggest, centered on the still life genre. This decision was made mainly because still lives have been at the forefront of mind for most of my life. It was by studying the grand Dutch still life paintings of the 17th century that I first started to develop the afore mentioned formula for a multilayer conceptual framework. Their impeccably rendered surfaces scream opulence and indulgence, while the suspicion of the physical world and the specter of death loom just below the surface. I have been exploring notions related to still lives by pushing them into the realm of the abstract whilst playing upon the tropes and visual language of the genre. Although commonly dismissed as hackneyed or banal, I aim to prove that the still life genre has much to offer contemporary art