It makes sense that Sonja Schenk’s latest body of work provides a perspective that only a few would even consider. Absent of a horizon line, the improvised landscapes that comprise Schenk’s solo exhibition, Hovenweep,provide an elevated point of view that few rarely if ever have the opportunity to glimpse.
The Los Angeles based artist’s newest paintings provide what one might consider a bird’s eye view. This is due in part to her extensive background in film, which has lent her the ability to visualize the terrain we walk upon from a truly unique perspective and vantage point.
Most filmmakers have the advantage of achieving this rarely captured perspective with the assistance of CGI effects, drones, and aerial cranes. Schenk, however, discovered that she could reproduce a similar point of view by sourcing photographs of various rock formations, which she then manipulated digitally and by hand. Relying upon this inventive technique as a starting point, Schenk continues to employ this approach to base her otherworldly landscapes that come across from an almost alien vantage point.
Five years ago, Schenk committed to what has grown into an extensive survey of landscape. Using plaster and Styrofoam, she initiated her exploration by creating works that assumed the shapes of unearthed concrete slabs, broken free from the streets or sidewalks to which they once had been tethered.
The basis for these sculptural installations emerged from Schenk’s experience growing up in Los Angeles and a deep-seated childhood fear of earthquakes. With Southern California’s history of regular seismic shakeups, it wasn’t an unfounded anxiety. Most everyone living on the West Coast can’t help but share a similar unease since the likelihood that an 8.0 earthquake is anticipated anytime within the next two to three decades.
The difference between Schenk’s angst about earthquakes and the unease shared by most who live within harm’s reach of the San Andreas Fault was that Schenk’s fear escalated to a point that compromised the quality of her daily existence.
While Schenk was fortunate to overcome what eventually morphed into an obsession about the calamitous consequences that an earthquake could inevitably impart, her decision to revisit this fear is what drove her to launch an investigation about the festering power that resides in the shifting ground that rumbles without warning beneath our feet.
Schenk’s childhood fear not only encouraged her to pursue the concept of unstable landscapes, but the works she produced thereafter and were featured earlier this year at the History of Museum of Art and History (MOAH) in Lancaster, California, pushed her to further her survey concerning perspective and how it might be interpreted by future civilizations that have endured devastating destruction yet found peace with the absence of gravity’s pull.
Undeniably, Schenk’s work evokes a variety of emotions. The artist, herself, describes her subject as a reflection of the feelings and/or moods we encounter when faced with a “stillness or calm that belies a history of violence or loss, like the thin crust of the earth or the slender skin of civilization.”
Of note is the title Schenk chose for her show, Hovenweep. The word comes from the indigenous Ute population and translates as “deserted valley.” It is a phrase that describes the terrain upon which several Anasazi ruins remain and date back to the mid to late 1200’s BCE.
Anyone who’s visited this heritage site, located in the remote desert region between Colorado and Utah, can’t help but meditate on its significance as a portal through which today’s civilization can connect with its ancient past. While these sacred ruins reveal the remnants of a people who lived some seven thousand years ago, documented evidence suggests that the region was in fact inhabited by several flourishing cultures dating as far back as 10,000 BCE.
By referencing the past through actual and imagined formations of perplexing symmetry that defy gravity and the absence of a grounding horizon line, Schenk has produced a truly illuminating body of work. Not only do the distinct points of view that collectively comprise Hovenweep convey a new landscape order, but the exhibition as a whole invites viewers to stop and consider how the ruins of our existence might appear to future civilizations.
Hovenweep opens on May 22 and will remain on view at Prescott College Art Gallery at Sam Hill Warehouse, in Prescott, Arizona, through June 20. In addition to Schenk’s recent exhibition at MOAH, her work has been featured at the Yokohama Triennial in Japan, the Musée du Papier-Peint in Switzerland, the Vincent Price Art Museum in Los Angeles, and the Berkeley Art Center in Northern California.