John Sonsini is a Los Angeles-based artist known for his portraits of Latino day labourers, which he has been creating since the 1990s. Working with distinctively textured brushwork, Sonsini draws attention to the often-overlooked population of Los Angeles and the wider county by depicting them as dignified, individual subjects.Read More
While Sonsini has denied that he perceives his work to be political, it nevertheless resonates with contemporary concerns of identity, class, immigration, and racial discrimination.
John Sonsini conceived the idea to paint Latino workers with help from Gabriel Barajas, his long-time partner and model who immigrated to the United States from Mexico. Barajas often chooses Sonsini's models, inviting labourers he knows or encounters in the streets of Los Angeles to the artist's studio.
Sonsini's approach to his portraits is personal and time-consuming: for up to five weeks, the artist asks his models to take time off their usual jobs to pose full-time, for which Sonsini provides hourly compensation. When Sonsini begins painting, he does so in his characteristically thick and spontaneous brushwork to capture the immediacy that derives from working with live subjects.
In Sonsini's paintings, his subjects appear against nondescript backgrounds, but the inclusion of certain paraphernalia and the humanistic rendering of the sitters imbue the portraits with suggestions of narrative. Their eyes are dark and direct, indifferent or contemplative in portraits such as Pedro (2014/2018) or Rene (2015), while the tower of suitcases and wrapped boxes to the left of Miguel Antonio (2018) imply a subject with a complex story beyond the picture frame.
In Cowboy Stories & New Paintings, his 2020 solo exhibition at Vielmetter Los Angeles, John Sonsini explored the myth of the cowboy that is synonymous with the American West. Instead of heroic, white American icons, however, the cowboys in his paintings are Latino men, resting or posing calmly for their portraits. Francisco Meglar, a model Sonsini has painted over 20 times, holds a cowboy hat as he stands next to an open suitcase and a pair of jeans hanging on the wall in Francisco (2019).
Cowboy Stories also featured paintings depicting clothing items, such as the clothes hanger and belts in Apt 207 or the shirts in Apt 208 (both 2019). Hung on the wall without a proper wardrobe, the objects stand in for the arduous routine of day labourers.
Sonsini has held numerous solo exhibitions including A Day's Labor: Portraits by John Sonsini, Art, Design & Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara (2019); John Sonsini, Miles McEnery Gallery, New York (2016); Daywork: Portraits, Long Beach Museum of Art (2018); and John Sonsini, Patrick Painter Gallery, Los Angeles (2015). Following Cowboy Stories, Vielmetter presented Sonsini's work at EXPO CHGO in 2021.
Selected group exhibitions include Really., Miles McEnery Gallery, New York (2020); The Sweat of Their Face: Portraying American Workers, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. (2017); Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney's Collection, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2016); and The Triumph of Love: Beth Rudin DeWoody Collects, Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach (2014).
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2021
There have always been multiple entry points for viewers to come to terms with John Sonsini's bravura portraits of single or multiple male subjects, most of whom are Mexican day laborers, and 'the age of Trump' has unexpectedly provided us with yet another.