MIAMI — Strong in the traditions of European and Carribean art, The Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale has an array of standout exhibitions that include the work of painter William Glackens and a collection of ceramics by Pablo Picasso. What left an impression during a recent visit, however, was the work of Los Angeles painter John Sonsini.
Primarily working with oils, Sonsini is best known for his works portraying Latino day laborers. For years, Sonsini has hired men from the Los Angeles streets, painting them in his studio and offering them a daily wage in exchange for using them as models.
The work of Sonsini boasts colorful, thick brushwork in a direct approach that accentuates the simple humanity of each of its subjects. The painting “Luis, Nelson, Adolfo, Geovani, Ramiro” (2005) is particularly compelling. The men’s poses, very natural and fluid, are arresting in their ability to draw one in. Sonsini’s use of color here is bold yet purposely delicate, the dark features of his subjects bringing balance to the whole. He does well at capturing the honesty, strength, and frailty of the five men, provoking questions of race, class, and the interesection of art and life.
Gabriel Barajas (left) was from 1995–2001 Sonsini’s only subject. Today, Barejas chooses many of Sonsini’s models, men he knows or has met on the streets of Los Angeles county looking for work. Sonsini understands the importance of what he documents in his art, though he has never set out to make any particular statement. Instead he allows the men to speak for themselves, their emotion taking center stage. Some of Sonsini’s paintings are of single figures and others highlight a group of men standing or sitting. The political undertones in Sonsini’s works cannot be missed, though Sonsini would say “painting a portrait is already political.” In one interview, the artist explained his portraits this way, “For me painting the portrait is about recreating the sensation of presence, the experience of having the sitter in my studio.”
With a raw energy and tension, Sonsini uses the focused gazes of his men to bridge the gap between subject and spectator. More than simple portraits, the works bring new life to the framework of portrait painting. Take for instance the painting “Byron and Ramiro” (2008) where the men’s eyes seem to be communicating something to the audience, causing us to wonder what exactly that might be. The detail of Sonsini’s men, at times carricature-like, is both empathetic and straightforward, capturing the body language and facial expressions of the men to lasting and powerful effect.
The Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale is located at 1 East Las Olas Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.