John Sonsini's "Rene," 2007.

John Sonsini's "Rene," 2007.

John Sonsini, The Santa Barbara Project.

At SBCC’s Atkinson Gallery. Shows through November 2.

John Sonsini’s portraits dignify the unseen individual. From out of a field of broad, confident brush strokes and thick applications of pigment, his subjects make eye contact with the viewer like identities trying to come into focus.

The models for the nine oil paintings and five drawings in Sonsini’s current Atkinson Gallery exhibit were all hired from the Yanonali Street “wall” in Santa Barbara, where unemployed men mark time hoping for job offers. It takes a certain daring, Sonsini observes, to seek work in such a manner, which recommends these men as fit subjects for portraiture. For the last five years he has drawn models from similar venues in Los Angeles, an idea suggested by Gabriel Barajas, who from 1995-2001 was Sonsini’s sole model. Barajas now selects Sonsini’s models for him, and also documents the artist’s process. Several of Barajas’s photographs accompany the exhibit, adding a compelling insider’s perspective to an eloquent body of work.

There is a sense of reverse order to Sonsini’s art. The drawings, for example, were produced last-he only draws models he has already painted. As part of his artistic process, Sonsini spent years experimenting with canvases of various sizes, all of which he found “problematic.” Only after he settled on the small, 20Ê°î²16Ê° frame he now uses for most of his paintings did he recognize that the dimensions invoked an ID photo or mug shot. Sonsini has always been sensitive to the societal zone from which his models come-it is part of what motivates him to paint them-but he also believes portraiture possesses an inherent authority which frees him from the need to “say something.” “Painting a portrait is already political,” he said, maintaining that the look of his work results primarily from attending to technical considerations.

Sonsini is not out to create literal representations, but the “sensation of likeness.” The centerpiece of the show is a large, full-length portrait titled “Miguel.” The subject’s expression is intent, as if meeting the artist’s scrutiny. Sonsini likens his relationship with a model to a conversation. The sensations of his conversations, and the thoughts they stimulate, echo powerfully through his portraits and beyond.

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