Artist Sonia Rentsch: Weapons & Nature

When I think of still life art what springs to mind are 19th century paintings by Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh. Of overripe apples spilling from a basket, teetering on a table’s edge, or wild flowers delicately arranged in a copper vase, reflecting fractured light. The French term for still life is “nature morte,” literally translating in English to mean “dead nature,” and for artist Sonia Rentsch this couldn’t be more definitive. Yet it still sounds a little strange to hear a contemporary artist describe her practice as still life.

Image by Albert Comper, courtesy of January Biannual
Image by Albert Comper, courtesy of January Biannual

Have you ever noticed how many still life works portray fruit and vegetables, flowers and other such things that are slightly off? Just starting to mould, and sometimes even putrefy? Having no modern refrigeration this of course makes sense. It isn’t nature in this instance that I take as inspiration for my work but the ability to find beauty in something we would generally classify as ugly or mundane. To breathe life into something and challenge the viewer to look again.

Melbourne born, but New York City based, Rentsch works in whichever medium she is presented with, carefully constructing her magically stylised arrangements with absolute attention to detail. In her most recent work, titled Harm Less and produced for January Biannual magazine, Rentsch composed a series of weapons from organic materials. Like all good things, the work evolved quite naturally, starting with a collection of off-cuts and foraged items.

I had been working on another job the day prior that had used an enormous amount of flowers and I had the providence to ask if I could take all the scraps when I left. I arrived with piles of stems and leaves, dried bark, petals, anything and everything that I thought of interest. The idea had initially started as a full series of weaponry. Knives, spears, arrows, and guns sparked from the simple form of a cactus that resembled a blade. It was the gun that I found most captivating and on set I suggested I attempt to expand away from the other pieces and build further arms. The one gun I arrived with turned out to be the weakest of the series. It’s often the case that an idea will grow prior to a shoot but only fully bloom once on set.

It’s difficult to miss the visual irony and wit in Rentsch’s work and by playing on the conflict between the living and natural world with themes like violence, death and destruction she manages to highlight beauty in the most unusual of places.

I actually think that weapons, like nature, can be incredibly beautiful. I grew up surrounded by them. I know how to use one and I understand that a weapon can be harmless. It’s not the gun that makes it dangerous, but the person holding it. That doesn’t mean in any way that I encourage gun ownership or use, but it does mean that I hold a respect for what a weapon is and I understand why they exist. Nature too, though not controlled by us, is a force greater than we know. It is astoundingly beautiful but it needs to be treated with respect.

Like many artists, Rentsch sees her life as a creative process and her existence has always been embedded in nature. She grew up on a patch of land owned by her grandparents on the side of a now extinct volcano in Western Victoria where from all corners the family had striking views of the Grampians.

I spent my childhood roaming free in both the garden that my mother and father built upon that land and also jumping fences to visit my grandparents, who lived on the other side of the hill.  My grandfather was known locally for his produce and the beauty of both his orchard and his veggie patch to the extent that last year, when he sadly left us, his coffin was covered in the most magical wreath of vegetables the florist had picked from his garden. My grandmother’s garden was equally magical and the memory of holidays spent trimming her roses, chatting with the willy wagtail in the snow ball tree and nursing wounds from angel wings will always bring a smile to my face.

Although now living far from home, and far from the earthy recess of her childhood, Rentsch seems totally enamored with New York City; a place she says is full of natural beauty just waiting for her to explore.

If I’m ever stuck on an idea I take a walk and instinctually head for either a park or the closest open space. My home is always filled with green things, be they potted, picked or purchased. Being here just now as the seasons change from Winter to Spring and the streets fill with dogwoods in flower, tulips tended to in sidewalk boxes and wisteria climbing. The thing I’m enjoying is the change of palette. The difference in smells, the trees I have to ask strangers the names of and the quiet spaces you can seek out amongst the concrete jungle.

As with all fellow Planthunters, it does not take long for our conversation to steer around to favourite plants, of which Rentsch has many.

There was a cavity specifically for a fish tank lofted over the dining room in my childhood home but instead it held a monsteria. It towered between blue sky and a small me and I thought it was the most beautiful thing. I’m still obsessed with them. Black kangaroo paws are also a favourite for their dark and sculptural nature. I like cherry blossoms that rain snow-like petals, chestnut trees that deliver conkers hidden in spiky shells, cactus’s that bloom unexpectedly, tulips in every colour and things people call weeds that make the cracks between the pavement green.

Check out more of Sonia’s work here.

Image by Albert Comper, courtesy of January Biannual
Image by Albert Comper, courtesy of January Biannual