A Man’s History As Passing Shadow On A Wall In John Sonsini’s Cowboy Stories & New Paintings
at Susanne Vielmetter, Los Angeles (through February 22)
Reviewed by Eve Wood
The iconic and often brutal mythology that informs images of the American West is unreliable at best, specifically as it relates to the larger-than-life stereotype of the cowboy. Forged in the fires of patriarchy, the familiarity of the gritty, rugged lone cowboy making his way on horseback across the prairie, persists to this day. He exemplifies the myth that has become synonymous with our image of American culture, yet this image is simplistic and problematic in that it privileges one culture over another and leaves no room for shared human experience.
Painting directly from life, John Sonsini’s Cowboy Stories and New Paintings reasserts the image of the cowboy in the guise of various young Hispanic men. These figures are strangely anachronistic, in that they derive from the Los Angeles landscape, both working and living in the sprawling cityscape. Yet these characters bring with them entire life histories, often carried literally in backpacks and suitcases. These histories seem to encompass important elements from their pasts that include clothes and trappings of cowboy lore as this small grouping of men pose directly facing the viewer and holding their cowboy hats, their expressions serene and confident yet also strangely misbegotten.
Culturally and conceptually, these men are the oft-overlooked or are altogether unseen, and these paintings take on new meaning given the charged political atmosphere surrounding issues of immigration and displacement in today’s world.
Sonsini approaches all of his subjects as individuals above all else, men who are fiercely independent, whose lives encompass immensely complex narrative tapestries, each story uniquely human and essential. Thus, familiar stereotypes are reasserted with great empathy. His working practice also further supports this theme as his chosen models are Hispanic day labors from the Inner City.
These figures speak with their bodies, their gestures honest and authentic, perhaps because the artist paints directly from life. Sonsini creates an undeniably palpable connection between himself and his subjects, and as with all great portrait painters, the paintings reveal as much about the artist as they do about the subjects he paints. The clothes these men wear, as well as other accessories including suitcases, boots, cowboy hats and large belt buckles, serve to further illuminate the more intimate aspects of their characters and their relationships to the world around them. The accessories themselves operate like ancillary characters in a play, hinting at deeper motivations and ways of Being not overtly recognized at first glance.
For example, in the painting Byron and Fernando, one man’s belt buckle is painted as a point of focus along with the figure’s oversized boots. These objects appear to operate as points of entry into the image, not only for the viewer to access a more intimate understanding of the subjects, but for the subjects themselves to express a personal relationship — perhaps even an abiding devotion — to their own past histories. These are emblems not only suggestive of identity but perhaps, more importantly, of longevity.
Sonsini has painted these same men over and over for the past fifty years, and one has the sense they comprehend and appreciate each other deeply. These are not only paintings but images that facilitate a deeply personal exchange between people whose experiences may be very different, but whose humanity is very much the same.
The work calls to mind images by other great portrait painters, including Alice Neel who created luminous portraits of family and friends that often revealed the strained and sometimes brutal realities of human connectivity as well as the humor inherent in being alive. Like Neel, Sonsini builds a central relationship between himself and his sitters that is both revelatory and powerful. We can derive a great deal of information from their physical gestures, which includes their body language. Standing with arms crossed or simply down at their sides, Sonsini’s subjects exude an air of restless hopefulness, yet it is the objects they carry that resonate as emphatically as their collective gaze.
Sometimes the objects are the subjects themselves, as in the still life entitled Apt. 207, where three leather belts appear to hang on a blue gray wall next to a wire coat hanger. As with the portraits, this too is an examination of identity and psychological space, wherein the belts stand as intimations of traditional masculine culture. Yet here they are not employed in any specific activity but hang limp against the wall, awaiting engagement. The image also suggests the impermanence of all things, including human existence. The hanger teeters, waiting for its coat, just as the belts are useless without the human form. But it is the seemingly passive wall behind them, as in all of Sonsini’s paintings, where we find the shifting shadows of all things corporeal and not in a constant state of luminous transformation.