Tonja Torgerson goes from street art to still-life riffs for "Free Radicals"


For her Vanitas series, Minnesota artist Tonja Torgerson references the historical vanitas tradition, where artists would paint beautiful still-life works with one element that was somehow off or wrong: a piece of fruit would be rotten, a mouse would eat away at the cheese, the glasses were broken.

“It’s a moral religious tale that says that all this material wealth won’t last,” Torgerson says. The style grew popular during the Protestant Reformation, a time when iconography went away and religious messages were imbedded in heavily symbolic paintings. 

“I love symbolism and layering,” Torgerson says. While she aims to create work that is laden with content, narrative, and messages, it’s not overt. “They are really layered and sometimes hidden and sometimes obscure,” she says. “The whole story is not easy to comprehend.” 

Torgerson, who hails from northern Minnesota and is currently based in Kansas City, will be returning to the Twin Cities this week, exhibiting her pieces in “Free Radicals: Remixing History Through the Power of Print,” a group exhibition at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery featuring artists who utilize historical references in their art. As part of her visit, Torgerson will be giving a talk with Jenny Schmid, who co-curated the show with Howard Oransky.

While she mostly exhibits in galleries and museums these days, Torgerson has spent some time creating art on the streets. “[Street art] is a practice that I’m still really interested in and influenced by,” she says.

Torgerson especially found street art to be a fit during her time living in upstate New York, where she earned her masters at Syracuse University. “There was something about living in a very decaying environment that I felt I really belonged in,” she says. 


The piece she’ll be showing at the Nash Gallery employs the same techniques Torgerson uses in her street art, though for an indoor installation piece she gets to spend more time composing it. “Most street pieces are single figures,” she explains.

At the Nash, Torgerson’s installation will be made of screen prints and pieces of paper that were laser cut and wheat pasted on the wall. She references a painting of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, as well as work by Dutch still life painter Rachel Ruysch.

At tonight's talk, Torgerson will delve into her processes creating her street art and vanitas pieces, and how imagery in history is a huge influence in her work.


Artist's talk with Tonja Torgerson

Thursday, February 25, at 7 p.m.

Katherine E. Nash Gallery

A reception for “Free Radicals: Remixing History through the Power of Print” follows until 10 p.m.