Kathrin Sonntag, Problems and Solutions @Thomas Erben

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 photographic works, installed in the main gallery space and behind the reception desk. All of the works are photographic wallpaper (some mounted on wooden panel), with particular additions of painted walls (dimensions variable), a folding table, a blanket, stones, rope, ladders, masking tape, wood slats, metal joints, black tape, a paint roller/rod, paint cans, a found pipe object, and straps. All of the works were made in 2017 and are available in editions of 2+1AP. Image sizes are either 37×25 inches (or reverse), 138(or 144)x53 inches, or 138×89 inches. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Kathrin Sonntag’s recent body of work Problems and Solutions starts off as an understated testament to the power of human ingenuity. Like the inventive efforts of astronauts fixing a broken air filter with a tennis sock and duct tape, her pictures are whimsical evidence that when a problem presents itself, a temporary or make-do solution is often where we begin, and if that solution serves its purpose well enough, it may never need to be replaced by something more functional or elegant. And so our world becomes populated by a surprising number of jury-rigged eccentricities that get the job done with a minimum of fuss.

Like many photographers documenting found oddities, Sonntag has developed an eye for these kinds of overlooked discoveries. Is a wheeled dumpster rolling away too much? Tie it to a nearby tree with a piece of rope. Is a leafy tree interrupting your scaffolding? Built it right around the tree. Is an ancient tombstone embedded in the floor in the way? Construct the new woodwork right over it. Or is a heavy tree limb sagging too low? Prop it up with a single two-by-four. When we see these isolated solutions now, they look almost ridiculous, but it’s hard not to marvel at their obvious effectiveness.

If all that Sonntag did was to show us a deadpan parade of these kinds of funky makeshift inventions, her work would be hard to separate from that of many others who have observed similar strangeness. But her quirky evidence photographs seem to function much more as an artistic jumping off spot than as a finished endpoint, deliberately bridging into the realm of installation.

This transformation into three-dimensions begins with how Sonntag prints her images. Each photograph is printed on vinyl wallpaper and many have been mounted on wooden panel (a few are affixed directly to the wall or hung from the ceiling). The trick (and I must admit that I too was fooled until the gallery pointed it out to me) is that the white border seen around the images isn’t actually a physical frame – it’s simply a white border, folded around the edge of the wood to look like a frame. This turns out to be important because Sonntag can then hang these glassless, edgeless, flat objects with much more flexibility, installing them on the sides of the posts in the center of the gallery or leaning them against walls.

The first layer of Sonntag’s installation-centric thinking comes in displaying the images in a manner similar to the solution scenes she has captured in her photographs. This is a roundabout way of describing the following, as an example: Sonntag’s print of planks and boards tied to a tree to keep it upright is actually physically tied to one of the gallery posts using a black strap. This clever investigation of a photograph as an object in space, which then draws its installation inspiration from its own subject, has a satisfyingly recursive quality. Her image of a closet mounted high on the wall (so the closet doors don’t bang into the other furniture and therefore can more easily open) is hung, you guessed it, high up on a wall behind the gallery reception desk.

But Sonntag doesn’t stop there – another group of artworks turns the conceptual crank one more time, adding both an image-of-an-image duality and a selection of sculptural objects to the layered installation mix. Without getting too figure-it-out literal, let’s consider an unpacking of the work Problems and Solutions: Section 1. Sonntag starts with a photograph of a found oddity – an improvised table, set up using a tree stump as a support, a tarp as a covering, and some bricks and stones as weights to hold the tarp down to keep it from blowing away. She has then made a flat object print (as described above) of this image and installed it against a white wall by having it sit on top of another wooden table, and at the foot of this table, she has pooled a pile of green rope, perhaps as an echo of the green grass at the foot of the tree stump in the original picture. So the image of the “table” is sitting on another table. From there, she has made another image of this entire installation and hung this scrolling image from the ceiling of the gallery, using heavy stones to hold it to the floor and drizzling a strand of actual green rope around on the floor. So now, we have multiple layers of objects, images, and installations, all in one three-tiered, self-referencing nest of mind-bending ideas.

Without unraveling all of the iterative details in the other works on view here, suffice it to say that Sonntag uses a similarly brainy approach in her image of a mop hung over a wall to dry (and the associated ladder and paint roller physically installed in the gallery) and in an image of black tape used to patch up a broken glass door (and the black tape used to affix the image of the image to the gallery wall). In each case, she’s asking us to follow her step-wise transformations, progressively moving from straight-up face-value photography to installations that twist and bend those original visual ideas into much more complex constructions in three-dimensional space.

Some will surely find these kind of machinations unnecessarily obtuse, but to my eye, these same layers of misdirection often feel vibrantly and engagingly sophisticated. For Sonntag, each photograph has become the kernel of a system of discrete relationships with real physical properties. That’s an intellectual framework with some profound implications for what photography can be, worthy of some additional puzzling and wondering.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $4500, $6000, $7500, or $10500 based on size. Sonntag’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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