Even while Sonneman was deconstructing consciousness with her photos, she was privately pursuing her first passion, painting. “I’ve been painting since the age of seven,” she says. “Everyone labeled me a photographer, and I’m thrilled at that, but all along I was also doing my painting. It hasn’t been widely seen. I don’t feel it needs to be separated, or that I need to be labeled.”
Sonneman’s paintings are comprised of innumerable small, colored dots, each bounded by a halo of pigment. If the photographs for which she is best known can be seen as a kind of visual phenomenology, her oils are forays into the sensual pleasures of light and color. “They don’t refer to things that you might see and know, but things you might imagine,” she says. I would hope that when people look at the paintings, they’ll let their minds wander into invisible worlds.”
Sonneman’s practice borrows techniques from the Renaissance, including sizing her linen grounds with rabbit skin glue. “I start randomly somewhere in the middle of the picture,” she says, “and the whole thing grows,” proceeding from that first mark without premeditation or destination. “I try to have my mind as blank as possible. It takes a great deal of concentration. I work and work till I get to the edges.”
The brushes she uses are Number 1’s, small tools for painting. “Obsessively small,” Sonneman concedes. “I’m an obsessive artist. I can’t make a mistake on these paintings. I can’t let the paint drip or smear. It’s all got to be precise, and it’s all got to build from one point throughout.” Despite such severe self-discipline, the finished works burst with joy. Silver Sun, like many of her paintings, is composed of two panels, only one of which is reproduced on the cover. The scene could be a field of flowers basking in the sun, or a galaxy of stars around a shining moon.
Sonneman’s paintings are on view through the end of September at the Brill Gallery, 243 Union Street in North Adams, Massachusetts. Her oils are paired with her innovative “sonnegrams,” photographic collages she constructs within a large Polaroid camera. Like her paintings, Sonneman’s new photographs take the viewer to interior landscapes of magic and dreams. “It took me a long time to get to this point, because of all the years I worked with reality,” she observes. “Now that I don’t, I’m much freer.”