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 John Sonsini  (1950 - )

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Lived/Active: California      Known for: day laborer portraits and figures

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A Los Angeles artist, John Sonsini paints portraits directly from models, primarily Latino day workers.  His goal is to depict attitude, body language and the uniqueness of these people who often are below the radar of many people in the Los Angeles area that is home to Sonsini.  Of his work, it is said that he avoids imposing his own pre-conceived attitudes on his subjects but lets them speak for themselves.  His work reflects both empathy and an awareness of the fact that he shares little in common with the life experiences of these people who play a vital but low profile role in American life.  "This balance results in figurative works that communicate in a surprisingly forthright yet nuanced manner." (125)

Sonsini's career began to ascend in the 1980s when he had three Neo-Expressionist exhibitions in Los Angeles.  He then stepped back for a self-imposed nine year sabbatical to evaluate his career direction.  For awhile he was painting backdrops for photographer Bob Mizer, "known for his one-man mail order beefcake studio." (125)  Mizer's approach was influential on Sonsini in terms of lighting, focusing on facial gazes and on the male figure often standing in a slightly angled position with slight distortion.  The facial expressions suggest that something interesting is going on in the mind of the person being depicted---that there is a narrative underlying the portrait and that it is much more than just a figure or portrait painting.

In spring of 2005, Sonsini had his first exhibition in New York City, and included twelve paintings of Latino figures, some solo and some with several figures.  Following this event, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego had a Day Labor exhibit of 20 portrait heads completed within a month by Sonsini during a February 2005 project in East Hollywood.  He worked six days a week throughout that month in the outdoor parking lot of the Hollywood Community Job Center, an employment agency.  After the daily assignments were handed out, Sonsini would choose a model from the men left behind, and then hold a lottery whereby he paid the winner sixty dollars for the day to pose.  Each portrait was completed within the day in a marathon session.  Sonsini usually titles his paintings with the name of the model, and then marks the back of the canvas with the city of origin and the model's signature. 

These portrait heads from this project were exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego in a way they could be seen from the outside by morning commuters---a reminder that many types of human beings compose the population in which some people come and go without much thought beyond their own busy schedules.

Source:
Michael Duncan, 'The Faces of Work', Art in America, December 2005

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