Anyone acquainted with John Sonsini's work knows the drill. The Angeleno would find subjects for his portrait paintings by picking up day laborers at known street corners and Home Depot parking lots, paying them their normal hourly wages to sit for him. They picked their clothes and poses, and Sonsini painted them mostly straight on.
Given the rare opportunity for this country's Mexican immigrants to represent themselves as they, for the most part, see fit (albeit, in this case, a strictly male population), it's a story that's fit for the pages of a saccharine Hollywood script. But now that Sonsini's gotten your attention, how's the work?
Well, simply, it's good, painterly paintings. And right now, 11 of Sonisini's more recent works are on view at Inman Gallery. Eleven might seem like a small number, but each work demands that you spend time with it, examining each quick, thick brush stroke, noting the acute attention to detail in every puff of chest hair or thin mustache -- a remarkable task, given the abstract quality of the work -- and returning the gaze of each of the male subjects.
They say the clothes make the man, an oft-quoted idiom that suffices here. The subjects sport jeans, khakis, security uniforms or, predominantly in this show, their fútbol attire, soccer balls held close to their sides. One subject chose curiously to go topless, leaning against a table, a perfect illustration of the raw honesty that these portraits convey.
The unique expressions on each of the subjects' faces are also remarkable. The eyes -- seemingly the same black pupils on white -- are all uniquely expressive. Their postures, too, are carefully composed, arms fiercely crossed, or hands casually in pockets.
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In an interesting contrast, some subjects are represented twice, in their sports wear and work or casual attire, such as with the two "Roger" pieces (all the works are named after their subjects). In one, Roger wears his security uniform and leans back in a barely visible chair, his legs looming straight out at you and his arms crossed intimidatingly across his chest. In another, he's in his fútbol uniform, his arms lax at his side with a soccer ball tucked under one. But whether at work or at play, he's still serious.
All the men are painted in quick brush strokes against more free-form blocks of pastels. In some spots, these backgrounds aren't complete, a corner left the white of the canvas. This unfinished quality gives the pieces a hurried feel, an appropriate sense of time and labor spent.
I do have one serious gripe with Sonsini's admirable work -- where are the ladies? Surely as the artist branches out from day laborers, finding other subjects through their friends and suggestions, he can add a female perspective to the mix. Because right now, it's painfully, obviously lacking.
"John Sonsini: New Paintings" at Inman Gallery, 3901 Main, now through February 25. For more information, call 713-526-7800 or visit the gallery's website.