Broad Reminders: The Paintings of John Sonsini
Catalogue Essay 2010 Click for PDF
Broad Reminders: The Paintings of John Sonsini
By Eve Wood
"Like a thumbprint on a water glass, I'd like my portraits to be broad reminders of a specific person," Sonsini has said of his own work, meaning that the essence of the subject can never be captured, only suggested. Sonsini takes as his subject Hispanic men and this particular body of work extends into Sonsini's prior oeuvre, the most notable of which is his portraits of day laborers, men he's met in and around the streets of midtown Los Angeles. Sonsini has been painting Hispanic men for over twenty years, yet within this grouping in particular, Sonsini's relationship to his subjects has deepened and slowed, become more deliberate and significant. Sonsini has explained, "The presence of a sitter seems to give my eye and hand a kind of liberty that's not usually associated with painting from life."
Comprised of eight large-scale paintings, single and double portraits, each of the paintings erupts from the canvas with deliberateness indicative of deep investigation. Portraiture is by its very nature anchored in historical precedent and because of this carries with it well into the 21st century both the weight and the relevance of an entire culture. As Aristotle wrote, "the aim of Art is to present not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance; for this, not the external manner and detail, constitutes true reality." Portraiture like every other genre of art has gone in and out of style throughout history, yet the cultural impulse to document a separate essence external from our own is always viable.
The painting "Cesar" shows us a man standing full face to the viewer, sturdy thumbs shoved into his pockets. Beside him rests a pile of luggage and two boxes, implying not so much the narrative of travel, or a peripatetic existence, but proposing instead the idea that the luggage is somehow drawn out from the man's body. These are not incidental items haphazardly placed, but objects that augment the figure's presence, infusing the surrounding space and indeed the man's body itself with mystery and power, the kind of mystery and power inherent in anything that appears sealed shut, i.e. untouched or off limits. What lies inside the boxes is of far less significance than the image of them sealed and waiting there. In many ways, the figure of the man standing echoes the arrangement of the luggage, each seeming to ask for some strange restitution, albeit secretly or softly under the breath. Reflected in the man's features is an intense resilience, coupled with a powerful and provocative presence. He gazes out at the viewer, not imploring any response from us, as he desires nothing from us as viewers; he is whole and complete unto himself.
For Sonsini, the paint itself becomes nearly a separate body, an intermediary channel of communication, at once malleable and defiant, worked in, over and through, with a presence all it's own, a will and a means toward form. Sonsini is sensitive to this will, and one can see where he has allowed the paint its freedom and other places where he has reined it in. There is tremendous movement here as in the painting "Deni and Francisco" where the pant legs of the figures becomes oddly geometric, even architectural in places, solid, chunky, again animating a "covered or sealed" space on the body. Sonsini's relationship to paint is an intricate, lively conversation where ideas are postulated and ultimately set down on the canvas as Sonsini's own unique realism. Clusters of marks and colors unite into a hand or a foot, then dissipate as though the conversation suddenly shifted. The technique whereby Sonsini manipulates the paint to simultaneously reveal and conceal a hand, a trouser leg, etc. amplifies Sonsini's basic approach, which is to remake what his sitter's image is 'about' without compromising what the paint is 'about', thereby creating a dialogue that sustains both.
In another painting entitled "Byron," the notion of "sealed space" is further explored as the figure's shirt is open revealing the man's bare chest, which oddly duplicates in pattern and size the piece of sealed luggage at his feet. Once again, the body "mirrors" the inanimate and vice versa wherein the structures of each are infused with meaning. The figure's face is serious, the mouth held in a tight linearity, drawing further emphasis to the surrounding blue space. The human body also "seals" and "mirrors" itself as in the painting of "David," a soccer player, his arms and legs crossed, exposing a taut muscularity. The only seated figure represented in the exhibition, Sonsini paints the sitter's physical form as its own separate "space" where the articulation of muscles in the subject's calves and thighs infuse the work with an undeniable erotic tension. Although the focal point of sensuality would appear to be the sitter himself, in actuality it's the red and white soccer ball at his feet that punctuates both the artist's and the sitter's desire.
In the painting "Pedro," Sonsini further extends the relationship between subject and object and heightens the erotic subtext only touched upon in the painting "David." The bicycle to the left of the figure references the luggage in earlier works and the man's body mimics the shape and position of the object. The man's arms, like the handlebars, seem wayward and disconnected from the rest of the body and his expression betrays a quizzical sort of attention held somewhere between curiosity and indifference. The hand holding the cigarette is vaguely confrontational and charged with sexual ambivalence, further heightened by the bicycle's "tell-tale skirt bar." He appears to be at once out of place in the scene yet perfectly positioned inside the moment as it unfolds. The man's torso becomes its own mottled terrain, its bareness echoing the adjacent space. A serene lavender surrounds his head, though another "mirroring" occurs here as a halo takes shape in the body of the paint itself and is repeated. It's these simultaneously bold, yet strangely understated gestures that give Sonsini's paintings their resonance. Within this painterly action is the suggestion of solitude, the complexity of a "life under excavation." This work in particular reminds us that painting an erotic image is as slippery as painting a portrait. You can get only so close and then it falls away.
Perhaps it's at this moment of deepest curiosity when the sitter's likeness, indeed the sensation itself falls away, that Sonsini forges a superhighway between himself, the sitter and the viewer.