john sonsini

artist profile by kim beil


“Ernesto,” 2005, oil on canvas, 72″ x 48″
Photo: courtesy ACME. Los Angeles

John Sonsini says of his thickly painted portraits of Latino men that he is “remaking the person’s image.” While this may seem tautological, the reality of Sonsini’s rich, expressive portraits in oil and the attendant critical analysis of them often point in opposite directions. Sonsini’s models are Latino day laborers whom he hires to sit for him. Though this circumstance often leads to political discussions of immigration and labor, Sonsini contends that all portraiture is political but his portraits are about people, not about the markers of their national identity or social class. He explains, “The information on cards in wallets is of little help to me. For me painting the portrait is about recreating the sensation of presence, the experience of having the sitter in my studio.” Sonsini communicates this presence in an exuberant, brushy style, exaggerating his subject’s hands and feet, and paying close attention to posture and facial expression.

Sonsini describes his earlier work, based on classic physique photographs, as “elaborate pictograms.” In 1985 a photographer visited Sonsini’s studio. “He saw all these physique photos scattered around and said, ‘You know, the photographer who made these is still alive.’ It was a remarkable moment for me. Eventually I did meet the photographer, Bob Mizer. His whole amazing compound of buildings and sitters just flabbergasted me. And so I started painting and drawing the men who were his models.” Sonsini concludes, “Painting from the live sitter changed the portrait entirely.” Sonsini, born in 1950 in upstate New York, projected that it would take another 10 years to redefine his artistic practice. Nine years later, Dan Bernier offered Sonsini his first solo show of the new work. Soon after that Sonsini, who now shows with ACME in L.A. and Cheim & Read in New York, met his longtime model, now studio manager and translator, Gabriel Barajas. Sonsini is nothing if not committed; he painted Gabriel, and only Gabriel, for almost six straight years.

At the same time Sonsini’s paintings have also been motivated by people he meets on the streets in his neighborhood, the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles. While he compares his method to street photography, the painter recognizes that differences exist between the two media. “I think we appreciate portraiture in painting because it’s not very specific. In photography we tend to look for illustrational likeness. Painting seems to be best at creating very generalized images with very specific sensations.”

Sonsini relates that the practice of creating a handmade object is already familiar to many of his sitters, laborers who work in various aspects of construction from drywall to painting and cabinetry. Rather than driving a wedge between the painter and the subject, Sonsini’s paintings emphasize the union between two kinds of labor, artistic and manual. In his attempts to locate and recreate the sensation of presence, that charged space between the painter and the model, Sonsini describes the emergence of a certain sense of credibility or an understanding of the particular value of the handmade object. The blank canvas is transformed through the manual labor of painting and shaped by the affective presence of two human beings sharing the same space. Sonsini’s canny explorations reveal that there is, essentially, an artist on both sides of the canvas.

John Sonsini is represented in Los Angeles by ACME, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
(310) 857-5942 or