Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reviewed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Review: Sonja Thomsen at Inova

I’ve seen it on so many antique shop shelves but never given a second thought to what we call it: milk glass.

On the one hand, the name given to these vases and little jars conjures the idea of essential, nourishing liquid. That perishable stuff that contains everything a new life needs; the endowment of mothers.

On the other hand, glass is a resilient and fixed material; something brittle, fragile and clear.
Then, when I consider what gives milk glass its particular opaqueness — the ash of bones — I begin to understand why it might attract an artist like Sonja Thomsen, whose work is up at Inova, 2155 N. Prospect Ave., as part of the Nohl Exhibition.

One of the most striking components of her installation is a grouping that features a series of photographs of tactile, bumpy milk glass objects that seem to sink into and become indistinguishable from their milky white ground and space itself.

Pasted flush against the wall, laid flat, is a tiny swollen pitcher with rows of little nodules and a candy dish shaped like a basket. Foreground and background commingle, as does what’s formed and flat, solid and not. We are invited to meditate on the conjuring nature of both photography and memory.
Each object isolated in a single photograph, these pretty domestic ornaments are like spirits of real things. Or perhaps of real bodies. By softening and subsuming these hard, inanimate objects, Thomsen enlivens them and gives them an almost fleshy presence. I am mindful of burned bone and the idea that women are vessels, too. I am mindful of the ways bodies are connected across generations.

Hanging in the space in front of these images like a witness is a photograph of a female form. It is a photograph of a woman with the surface of the photographic paper gently torn away from every part of the picture save the gown. Disembodied and white, with folds of fabric gently implying the body beneath, the image recalls classical sculpture and a certain timelessness.
But it’s familiar and universal enough to bring a mother, a sister or a friend to mind, too. The cotton nightgown, seen from the back and doused in sunlight and shadow, seems very everyday, very much of our moment.

Light penetrates the thin layer of photographic paper that remains and enshrouds this form -- which exudes absence -- in an ethereal light.

All of this is only a fraction of Thomsen’s installation at Inova, on view through Dec. 9, which represents new directions for a diligently experimenting artist.

In general, the work in the Inova show does not feel as resolved as "Lacuna," a remarkably strong, earlier series, but it also is in a state of becoming and feels more specific. It's a more singular line of inquiry to do with the body, women and time.

I find it fascinating that Thomsen, after years of exploring the elemental and complex nature of water in deep inky blue, reflective, abstract and liquid landscapes, is creating a fundamentally more physical, impenetrable, beautiful world of milky white today.

Watch "burning water" the "In The Making" video exploration of Thomsen's practice made with Jason Nanna. The video series showcased the work of local artists, who worked in collaboration with local filmmakers to produce short pieces for Art City. The exhibit is on view through Dec. 9. Installation views courtesy the artist.

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