(American, b. 1978; resides in Milwaukee, WI)
Sonja Thomsen’s series Glowing Wavelengths In Between (2013-2014) utilizes photography, handmade books, sculpture, and installation to look to the fields of math and science, which are perhaps humankind’s most direct line to empirical truth. Yet, how we access those truths is limited to how history has been recorded. Thomsen is particularly fascinated with the work of Maria Agnesi (1718-1791), the first woman to write a mathematics handbook and the second ever to be appointed as a professor at a university (the University of Bologna), a position she ultimately rejected. Agnesi’s famous equation is known as the “Witch of Agnesi,” evidence of her being labeled as “possessed” and “enchanted” merely for being a woman working in the field of mathematics in the 18th century. In highlighting Agnesi’s life, Thomsen provides a feminist lens to the male hierarchy of historical information.
Thomsen uses altered mathematics textbook pages explaining Agnesi’s equation, as well as the work of many of her peers, as a base layer for her works; one being Robert W. Marks’s influential but now dated 1964 primer, The New Mathematics Dictionary and Handbook. Overlaying iridescent strips of vinyl upon texts, charts, and figures, she alters previously cold and matter-of-fact text book writing into colorful bands, vivifying the words on the page yet also covering up and obscuring several passages of text. With her alterations, Thomsen fragments the clarity of the text and nods to the selectivity in the common histories of art, math, and science and their exclusion of women’s contribution to the fields. She riffs on codified knowledge and opens texts up to discoveries beyond rational meaning. Her process becomes a new iteration, less objective but more wondrous.
Rainbows also appear over and over again in Thomsen’s studies and animate the link between the known and the unknowable. Though easily explained scientifically, rainbows are visually stirring and rich with symbolism. In Thomsen’s hands, they are frozen in photographs, embedded in shimmering material, and broadcast as beams of light that play on gallery walls and illuminate artworks. Across all of her depictions, the prismatic glow never sits comfortably in the realm of the known. It is oblique and wondrous and Thomsen seeks it out. To quote the artist, “There should always be a place for wonder; it is a direct line to new knowledge.”
Sonja Thomsen completed her BA in Biology and Studio Art from Kenyon College (2000) and her MFA in Photography from the San Francisco Art Institute (2004). Her work has been exhibited widely in group and solo exhibitions, including Galerie f5,6, Munich (2014); Hoffmaster Gallery, Lawrence University, Appleton WI (2013); and the Reykjavik Museum of Photography, Reykjavik, Iceland (2012). Her work is in the permanent collections of the Milwaukee Art Museum and Ljosmyndasafn Raykjavikur, Iceland. Thomsen was a Hermitage Fellow (2008) and received the Greater Milwaukee Mary L. Nohl Fellowship for Established Artists (2011). Based in Milwaukee, she co-founded the Coalition of Photographic Arts and currently teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.