Hanson and Sonnenberg
In this essay, the artist Trevor Mahovsky, takes a close look at the 2012 Hanson and Sonnenberg stop-motion video The Way Things Are and its relationship to the ink jet collage works that followed from it.
For many years Canadian artists Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg lived and worked in Brooklyn, New York after attending art schools in Halifax and Chicago. Even early on they brought a raw conceptualism to their art, a conceptualism predicated on a certain spirit of outsiderness that leads them to favour the low over the high, the daily over the monumental.
An early porcelain sculpture, Karl Marx’s Maid (Helene Demuth), from 1995 is, on the face of it, an unlikely piece in their oeuvre. The work is figurative, small and alludes to content from the 19th century but there is a fitting sense of continuity in the handling of the maid’s long skirt that is snagged on the corner of the plinth. The figure pulls, but remains caught. And she is caught in multiple ways—in time, in her working class social order and in her thus ironic association to Marx. The figure is also caught by the emphasis on her lower body that is hidden under the twisted skirt. With her tugging, she embodies a kind of class and gender struggle that remains unending. And because of it she enters our contemporary space. She moves in our world—a survivor of history and its inequality.
This status as survivor, or rather marker of unchanging history, is what links her to the other more familiar polystyrene objects we associate with Hanson and Sonnenberg and their blue and green sculptural universe populated by an abandoned shopping cart, a broken down bicycle, a cluster of press microphones, an ice rink Zamboni machine, street lamps and now, in this current exhibition, a 16-ft tall utility pole that carries presence but not power into the exhibition space. The thread between all of them is a heightened sensitivity toward invisible infrastructures and an appreciation of the cultural entropy that works like a gravity on shaping the ever-flattening order of things.
This entropic thought realm underlies the title of Hanson and Sonnenberg’s 2012 stop-animation digital video The Way Things Are. The setting is their old Brooklyn neighbourhood at night (recreated with a stunning table top model that served as a set for the video shoot). As the movie proceeds, street objects come to life to wreck grudging havoc on the street and each other. It is an urban vengeance story where the objects—including miniaturized versions of their sculptures—act out a repressed hooliganism under brightly lit windows. Phrases like Neighbourhood Watch and Mean Streets come to mind as we see a seeping malevolence define city life. There is a certain formal contradiction that stems from the calming clinical blues and greens of Hanson and Sonnenberg’s polystyrene palette but the air of cool objectivity has a purpose. It elevates Hanson and Sonnenberg’s scruffy fantasias from the fuss of the moment into what seems more like the truth telling of documentary reality.
Their recent companion collage series pulls the story elsewhere. Titled Here (2016), the series shifts setting to the Ontario hinterland. Ink jet printed spruce tree fragments—also based on photographs of a tabletop landscape model—develop into an extended scenario of environmental depletion. City and country merge on a shared descending curve. Two of the images, one coloured, one black and white, both larger than the rest, show tight spheres of shivered trees. The spheres stand as harbingers of a likely planetary fate. For Hanson and Sonnenberg this is not just our fate, it is our immediate neighbourhood.
Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg have exhibited in international solo and group shows at Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax; Friedrich Petzel, New York; Cohan and Leslie, New York; The Suburban, Chicago and Store, London, England. Their works are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Peter Norton Foundation.
About Richard Rhodes Dupont Projects
Launched in 2016 as part of the new Dupont St. gallery scene in Toronto, Richard Rhodes Dupont Projects is devoted to a developing exhibition program of contemporary Canadian art. Founding editor of C Magazine and editor of Canadian Art from 1996 through 2015, Richard Rhodes brings his expertise to creating exhibitions by emerging and established artists from across Canada and abroad.