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Art review: John Sonsini at ACME

July 2, 2010 |  4:30 pm
300._JSonsini_JoseLuis John Sonsini’s eight new paintings at ACME are among the best he has made. Each is a powerful portrait that captures the individuality and ordinariness of young working men who can be seen on the streets of Los Angeles every day of the week.

The rugged construction and gentle sensitivity of the L.A. painter’s works give them a sense of down-to-earth innocence that never grows old. Openness and eagerness characterize all of Sonsini’s sitters, who also come off as being terribly vulnerable to forces beyond their control.

You want to know the stories behind the guys who stand alone, or in one case, side by side, in Sonsini’s pictures of everyday folks who make the workaday world go round.

All are on the go. “Pedro” shows up with a bicycle, “Jose Luis” ready to play in a mariachi band and “David” dressed for an amateur soccer match.

All are also waiting. Standing on street corners or sitting at bus stops, Sonsini’s figures are suspended in moments defined by anticipation. The hope of good things to come is palpable, as is the wisdom that life can be cruel.

“Luis,” with hands in pockets, is at once nervous and nonchalant. With his backpack at his feet, he tries to look as if he’s ready for anything when his expression suggests that he’s smart enough to know that he’s not. “Cesar,” with luggage and boxes piled at his side, is not as youthful as Luis. Yet his expression conveys enough suffering and yearning to fill a few lifetimes.

300.John-Sonsini_Cesar The only double portrait, “Francisco & Maynor,” juxtaposes two men who inhabit universes far apart from each other. On the right, the security guard labors mightily to embody authority. But his shy eyes and insecure glance bespeak inner conflict, suggesting a soul at odds with his role. In contrast, the man on the left looks comfortable in his own skin, at home in just about any situation.

Intimacy and distance — and the mysteriousness of identity — are Sonsini’s great subjects. His acutely observed and muscularly brushed paintings bring strangers up close and personal yet never violate anyone’s privacy.

This has a lot to do with what Sonsini does with perspective. All of his figures recede in space: Their feet are larger and closer to viewers, their heads slightly yet significantly more distant. This shift makes the men he portrays seem familiar and enigmatic, at once part of a viewer’s world and apart from it.

Sonsini’s paintings go far beyond capturing the humanity of unique individuals. His unforgettable works are also compressed essays that track the migration of the American Dream from past generations of immigrants to similar working-class people seeking to make better lives for themselves today.

The hopes and aspirations that have made America great live on in Sonsini’s radically democratic art. There’s no better way to start the Fourth of July weekend than by visiting this magnificent exhibition, which closes Saturday.

– David Pagel

ACME, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., L.A., (323) 857-5942, ENDS SATURDAY.

Images: "Jose Louis" (top) and "Cesar." Photo credit: Robert Wedemeyer.