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John Sonsini | Los Angeles Times

John Sonsini’s “Byron and Fernando,” 2019. Oil on canvas, 72 by 60 inches
(John Sonsini / Vielmetter Los Angeles)

I think John Sonsini may be the greatest portrait painter in the country.

That’s because his pictures of working-class men capture essential aspects of their individuality while revealing essential things about the world in which we live.

Sonsini’s portraits raise profound questions about identity — race, class, sexuality — while laying bare the cultural, economic and political underpinnings of the ways we see ourselves, especially as those visions take shape in relationship to others: people with different backgrounds, different upbringings, different dreams.

At the gallery Vielmetter Los Angeles, “Cowboy Stories & New Paintings” consists entirely of oils on canvas — 11 portraits and one still life.

The still life throbs with pathos, its pair of leather belts and lone coat hanger dangling from nails hammered into a bare wall that Sonsini has painted quickly and with great facility. Some brushstrokes are beefy, with paint spread liberally and deliciously. Others have been made by brushes with barely any paint on their bristles. Parts of the canvas remain bare, as if Sonsini ran out of supplies — or time — and abandoned the unfinished picture.

That’s the same feeling the belts and hanger convey. They look as if they’ve been left behind by someone on the run. Or maybe they were passed over by a model who simply wanted to wear something other than the brown and black belts hanging on the dressing-room wall.

A similar sense of on-the-run urgency and fashion-conscious self-presentation takes heart-wrenching form in Sonsini’s portraits. Whether standing or seated, alone or in pairs, painted up close or from a distance, each of the men in his astutely observed and ferociously brushed paintings is at once vulnerable and dignified, humble and honorable, pedestrian and poetic.

Sonsini paints his men from the inside. His empathy is palpable. So is the respect of distance, of knowing, in one’s heart and soul, that you never can know what it’s like to be someone else.

These portraits are all about vulnerability and power — and the life-changing transformations that take place when those realities intermingle.

As a gay man who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, Sonsini likely was treated as an outsider — distrusted and misunderstood, disparaged and discriminated against. That matches the emotional atmosphere of his portraits.

He finds his models not at agencies but in parking lots outside home improvement centers in Mid-City Los Angeles, where day laborers often gather. Sonsini spends about five weeks getting comfortable with a sitter, making many sketches and studies before picking up a paintbrush, much less embarking on a full-scale portrait. That intimacy suffuses his images.

All but two were made in 2019 and depict Latinos dressed for the rodeo. Their cowboy hats, ornamental belt buckles and leather boots inject a jolt of realism into Western stereotypes and Hollywood clichés. The two other paintings, from 2008 and 2009, show men in work boots and everyday outfits.

Saul and Lorenzo appear in both groups. The boyish openness seen in the early work appears weathered but not hardened in the recent paintings.

Compositionally, Sonsini’s pictures are brilliant. By enlarging his sitters’ feet, he makes each man, whether standing or seated, seem to tower over the viewer. He amplifies that impression by painting most of his subjects looking upward — as if engaged in conversations with people who are taller.

Stand before any one of his paintings and you may realize that you’ve been made to feel as if you’re heads and shoulders above where you actually are. Literally and metaphorically falling short, you feel power and vulnerability flip flop. How you respond matters more than you might imagine.

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