The Magic of the Illusion: Sonja Thomsen Plays with Light in “In the Space of Elsewhere”

img_2073Do not touch the art! This is what you are always told when you visit an art museum. Well, what if you had to touch the piece to actually see the art?

In Sonja Thomsen’s current installation “In the Space of Elsewhere” at the Marian Art Gallery, viewers have to press their faces against silver netting to see the artwork underneath.

img_2031-editThomsen’s background is in photography. Yet, in 2009, she began creating more sculptural works after installing a solo show where she had the opportunity to think about space, her work within the space and the spatial relationship between the two. She loves how photography is the magic of the illusion, light affecting pixels and silver bromide on gelation.

“I fight against the insistence of the camera to hold the frame and to hold time and to turn the dynamic experience of light and time into a static image,” Thomsen said. “But at the same time, I am so fascinated by it.”

When Thomsen first stepped into the Marian Art Gallery, she was intrigued by the scale of the walls, the height of the ceiling, the artificial and natural lighting and all of the different surfaces within the space such as the pattern on the floor. Her decisions in materials were made in direct response to the space.img_2078-edit

“I thought about the idea of the carpet and the texture of the carpet,” Thomsen said. “It led me to think about the netting as something, also looping, but flexible, malleable and another covering.”

Thomsen was energized by the West Coast Minimalism movement and the work of Robert Irwin, one of the artists involved with the movement. Irwin’s use of scrim veil to create semi-translucent walls led her to start exploring different types of shade cloth, which is a type of material often used for gardening.

“I’ve been chasing light,” Thomsen said. “I’m trying to think about how to animate light. Maybe I need to think about shade as much as I need to think about light. Maybe I need to think about darkness.”

Through her exploration of shade cloth, Thomsen found a type of shade cloth called aluminet. She found the material to be difficult because it was more fluid and not as plain as she had wanted. Within her studio, she photographed it, scanned it, took videos of it and made photograms and enlargements of it.

img_2044-edit“I’m really happy that I had that the time to explore the scale of that much material and that much space and how working with the netting, thinking as much about the shade and the shadows that it creates, but also how it animates light,” Thomsen said. “Being able to explore all that in the space was so great.”

Thomsen chose not to include color within the piece to focus on the effects created by both the daylight and the artificial lighting. She found that the differences in light depending on the time of day changed a viewer’s experience.

“One of the things that does happen when it gets darker in there and the daylight is no longer the dominant light source, is the canned light in the gallery illuminates the piece of prismatic vinyl that throws rainbows,” Thomsen said. “There is a rainbow up on the ceiling. There is a rainbow that hits the netting.”

Thomsen placed three photographs within areas of the gallery outside of the silver netting to serve as directional markers for the installation. In two of the photographic images, she peeled away the figure within the image to reveal the paper underneath. For her, the figure’s impression represents how a person has to touch the netting to see the forms underneath.












“Also, the images keep you away from accessing who that portrait is,” Thomsen said. “It’s like the netting keeps you away from accessing the details of the installation within.”

For the third photograph, Thomsen completely peeled away the photographic image. She then added her own light-sensitive photo paper to create a triangle. This triangular shape mimics the other triangular shapes within the piece.

img_2023-edit“As they walk around the form, maybe they don’t even approach the netting and look through it, but those photographs on the wall keep them moving through the space,” Thomsen said. “And they connect at least that distance that they feel between what is on the other side of the netting through that distance of what’s in the image.”

Thomsen grew up in Milwaukee and attended Rufus King High School where she first became interested in art because of an art teacher she had. After high school, she attended Kenyon College, located in Gambier, Ohio, where she majored in biology and studio art. She then earned a post-baccalaureate certificate and a master’s degree in photography from the San Francisco Art Institute.

Like with this installation, Thomsen continues to find connections between the work that she is making and her interests in dance, science and photography.

“It’s realizing that the things we do at the beginning that is routine, that we develop growing up, how they continue to do their work on us and frame the way we experience the world,” Thomsen said.


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