Gold, Flowers, Shrines, Celebrations, Dead Animals, Glitter and Vibrators: Tony Sonnenberg

Have I ever told you how much I LOVE the Ceramic and Metal Arts building?  Well, I really do.  I biked down there on a beautiful afternoon last week to drop in on Tony in his studio.  The CMA is a magical place where all the best parts of it seem to always stay the same: a volleyball net and thirty bikes locked up out front, all the doors wide open, thick dust and clay residue EVERY WHERE, and some guy walking around without his shirt on.  It’s sort of like being at your best friend’s house where people are always coming and going, there are always snacks and music and someone’s always super stoned.  Let the good times roll.  Whatever, it’s a beautiful place and I immediately remembered that special place in my heart for the CMA.

 I’ve been trying to track Tony down now for about three weeks.  This guy is a super lovebug who you can’t help but feel at ease with whenever you’re around him.  “I had a piece blow up in the kiln the other day…” That was the first thing he said to me once in his studio.  He seemed pretty bummed out, or maybe just exhausted.  But in true Tony fashion, he followed it up with a beautiful up-beat aside: “But maybe it was just god editing my work for me!” HA/DUH.  Whatta guy!

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Tony’s Studio. GOLD!

As with all of the MFAs, Tony is preparing for his departmental thesis show (Tuesday at the CMA, 6pm) as well as the Henry show that opens Friday, so it makes sense that it’s taken so long to get some face time.  His work is great because his sculptural pieces are always perfectly finished and over the top decadent (he cites baroque and rococo as huge influences) and come out of layers and layers of stories and jokes, source materials, and imagined scenarios (as my #1 top favorite professor always says: “IT’S ALLEGORICAL!”).  Of his own work Tony has this to say: “My work is about facades and what’s behind facades, superficial narratives over more mysterious ones…I have a lot of interest in surfaces and modes of pulling the viewer in.  There is always a top layer of humor and beauty and materialism and decadence…you’re never quite sure what you’re looking at- you’re always second guessing what you’re seeing.  On the one hand, I employ all these tactics and then underneath all that there’s this darkness and kind of emptiness and isolation. It’s like you set up an expectation and then you thwart the expectation.”

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Installation shot, Tony Sonnenberg. 2012, CMA.

Although he spends most of his time down at the CMA with the sculptors, his own range is huge.  He has dressed up in performance pieces as Captain Dirty Bear, worked on video collaborations with Rodrigo Valenzuela and often incorporates such varied materials as doilies and animal furs into his sculptures. About the varied works he says “I’m still trying to flex my muscles… it’s always a line between trusting what I’m good at and what is already there, and then pushing it somewhere…and sometimes, it’s just: This Feels Good.”  Tony has been working on a huge installation in his studio that he’ll be moving piece by piece to the CMA gallery for Tuesday’s opening and it served as the looming backdrop for our time together.  The whole thing is composed of hundreds and hundreds of found objects, all painted gold, situated in a huge mysterious shrine, a giant bearskin as the centerpiece.  (You’ll have to head down to the CMA opening in order to see this installation piece for yourself).  For the Henry show Tony will be paring it down a bit, opting for a cleaner, tighter set-up:  two sculptural works and one self-portrait photograph mounted on plexiglass.

Tony’s studio and Untitled (Bearback).

 The first sculptural piece showing at the Henry on Friday is a “super hand made” bigger than life bouquet of brass foil flowers, individually cut out, etched and shaped, all hooked up to a silver, bullet-shaped motor that rattles the flowers.  (Me: “is that a vibrator?”  Tony: “yes.”).  The work is delicate in form, but the incessant buzzing is almost foreboding, like a giant swarm of bees.  It is titled Difficult Without Forgiveness, which is the last line of a Steven Millhauser short story that points to the possible fate of those who devote their life to the perfection of their craft.  The other sculptural piece we’ll see, Sybaris, is a dark, glossy heap of vaguely familiar forms: doilies, animals and flowers seem to be melting, oozing together.  Perched on top of their stands, these sculptures are like cakes and bouquets, offerings that we so often use in ceremonies honoring birth, marriage, or even death. They present themselves as vaguely familiar forms but then contain an element that throws the viewer off: the vibrating noises in Difficult or the ambiguity of forms in Sybaris.

 For the photo Untitled (Bearback) a nude Tony stands hunched over in-profile, weighted down by a full size stuffed bear cub chained in gold around his back. “I like to flirt around and do things in different orders, sometimes I have to do things that are quicker, like this photo, and then sometimes I have to make the golden flower piece that took, you know, like five months, everyday for hours and hours making all of those flowers, and then the ceramic sculptures which are somewhere in between…there are these three different paces of making things.”  He went on to say, “I really feel like this work is the best that I’ve made so far, and I made a bunch of it, and its been made and perfected and the best has been bubbled out and distilled…and…I feel good about the work coming out here.”  The two different shows, tomorrow at the CMA and Friday at the Henry are going to be wildly different sides of his work.  The CMA will be big party.  Expect to drink, get dirty and leave covered in gold glitter.  The Henry will be Tony the Artist with a capital A.  It makes total sense that he would reveal his final thesis work to us in this dual way because we see the same mediation between professionalism/play and finely tuned/perfectly unfinished in all of his pieces. He walks the line well and does it with humility, poise and a thoughtful sincerity that’s few and far between.

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Studio floor.
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Difficult Without Forgiveness. 2012.

 I see big things for this wunderkind, and he’s already booking his Moleskine out a year in advance.  In June he’ll have a piece in the Erotic Arts Festival, in July you can see his work at Soil with Emily Nachison (PDX) and Carolyn Hopkins (Seattle), for six weeks this fall he’ll be in residency at Pilchuck Glass School, then a Vignettes show in the winter, AND to top it off, a show at 4Culture with Rodrigo Valenzuela in February. GO TONY.

Swing by the UW Ceramic and Metal Arts Building TODAY 6-9pm to see the huge gold shrine installation and experience the generally excellent vibes of the CMA.

Friday night, come meet the man himself at the Henry exhibition of our 2012 MFA graduates 7-9pm.

More on Tony Sonnenberg right here.

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