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John Sonsini

American, b. 1950

Jorge
2002

Oil on canvas
60 x 48 in. (152.4 x 121.92 cm)
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
2002.48

Los Angeles figurative artist John Sonsini hires models at sites where day laborers gather to solicit jobs as housepainters or handymen and paints them at his studio in a mixed Asian/ Hispanic neighborhood. Stoked by intuition, as well as by insights gained from conversations with his subjects, Sonsini celebrates his sitters’ individuality. Never reductive or invasive, he conveys body language and highlights details of clothing and appearance that hint at the emotional lives of immigrant workers who are largely invisible in the economic and social life of our cities. Presenting his models face-forward, eye-to-eye, he bridges a social gap enforced by immigration laws and economic strata, one rarely crossed by most Middle Americans.

Sonsini’s wild brushwork maps a scenic route. Gestures in thick strokes of white emphasize light along a trouser leg, forehead, or shirt front. Stuttered marks and daubs of jet black delineate a goatee or mustache. Clunky bold curves embody the models’ shoes, rendered larger than life and sometimes only roughly outlined or scribbled in oil paint resembling free-form calligraphy. The figures in a Sonsini work typically are angled slightly toward the viewer, depicted in a kind of double perspective, as if seen from straight on and from above. “Tilting the foreground,” as the artist calls it, seems to give the paintings more space, and the figures more volume and presence.

The subject of Jorge tilts his head inquisitively, skeptically protecting himself from our gaze by clasping his hands in front of him and wrapping his legs around the chair’s sides. Firmly in place, he resists our assessment. His baggy pants and oversized shoes act as a kind of camouflage, accented by the off-kilter diagonal stripe of his polo shirt. Sonsini’s portrait seems to acknowledge the inadequacy of an image to represent a complex human being, while still celebrating in exuberant paint the mystery of depiction itself.

Michael Duncan


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