There is something bourgeois, even aristocratic about sitting for a portrait, engaged in the labor of sitting still. That contributes to the unexpected excitement in the aesthetically traditional portraits of Latino day laborers by John Sonsini. In a controversial move, Sonsini hires workers from Los Angeles work sites and pays them their hourly wage to sit for him. His expressionist works are mostly all of Mexican males and yet his pieces aren't overtly political; instead, the message behind Sonsini's thick brushstrokes is subtly filtered through the SoCal sunlight.
Classical portraiture privileges rank over identity, taking care to show the subject's status without as much emphasis as his expression. And yet, Sonsini's paintings depict class through the individual details in the subjects' clothing (or lack thereof), from their soccer uniforms to bare chests and blue jeans. However, a far greater understanding of the subjects emanates from their posture, which is decidedly guarded, showing they are slightly uncomfortable with this new treatment they're receiving from the artist. The subjects are portrayed as male paradoxes; both gentle and tough, rugged and worn out.
Sonsini does not give us the American Dream. But in his works he briefly actualizes this idea by giving power, time and labor to those who usually spend their days working in anonymity. Here, they become visible. The paintings pluck a worker from John Millet's 'The Gleaners' and place them in modern day LA for their, in this case, 5 hours of fame.
John Sonsini will display at Inman Gallery in Houston until February 25.
What do you think? Should the artist have paid the laborers a higher wage or was his rate justified? And does this traditional portrait reveal anything about the inner lives of the subjects, or is it more about the artist's technique?
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