Impossible to resist these guys. At Greg Kucera Gallery. Big: 72 by 60 inches, oil on canvas.
  • Courtesy the artist and Greg Kucera Gallery
  • Impossible to resist these guys. At Greg Kucera Gallery. Big: 72 by 60 inches, oil on canvas.

What John Sonsini is trying to tell you in his paintings is what it was like to share the room with the man you see in the painting.

He hires them to pose for the paintings because they are looking for work already; they are day laborers. He pays them the same wage they might get for hauling boxes—a decent wage, it is. He tells me what the wage is but asks me not to disclose it. It's a good wage.

I'm talking to John Sonsini on the phone. He lives in LA and this is his first show in Seattle; it's at Greg Kucera Gallery. It's also the first time he's ever shown his small, faint, almost nervous drawings alongside his large, boisterous, confident paintings. He is clearly a painter. He admits that he is nervous about his drawings. But they have their own appeal, really.

He's been doing this for 30 years. It was fascinating to get some of his stories down.

I read that when you paint the men nude, that's the way you see them. Clothed, that's the way the world sees them. Is that right?

I’ve been painting Latin guys here in LA since the '80s. That’s pretty much my theme. Sometimes I meet a person at Home Depot looking for work—three years later and 15 paintings later, the person is now a friend and shows up to my studio with some cowboy clothes on, and I make another painting. I worked for six years straight with Gabriel [1995-2001], and he became my partner. I always pay my sitters, because this is work, and I like it to be treated as work. But these are experiences, relationships.

I painted only nudes for about 15 years—probably from about '84 till about 2000—so it really felt like I saw every angle to that experience. I became fascinated by that curious line, that kind of invisible zone between the artist and the nude sitter, and I think I was forever, in the work, trying to erase that partition, right?

Sometimes it would be to do bodies of work that were enormously, highly erotic. Others that were more formally ideas, I guess I could say.

What I found, after all of that, was that there was no point in paying attention to that partition. What I discovered is that when the clothes came off, a different mask went up. And I think that for a long time I was kind of obsessed with this notion that when the clothes come up, so do all the masks, and the person is revealed, and if the person is revealed, then so am I.

Because after all—I’m certain of this, and whatever else I'm not certain about, about this activity I’ve been doing daily for the last 30 years, is that the portrait I paint of someone is no more about them than it is about me. There is no way to strip away everything, and I think ultimately all I wanted to get at was that astonishing experience, of having a person in the studio with me while I’m painting. And what that does to the painting process, really I looked at my paintings as I’m having a conversation with the image? If I’m painting you, I’m having a conversation with your image, and I’m doing that with paint.

Many people have said to me over the years, spending so much time with one sitter, you must learn a lot about him, and I think not necessarily so. I think the person learns a lot more about me. I don’t really know if there’s anything more amazing than observing someone working. It’s an amazing thing to do. And especially with the fellas I paint, who are looking for work specifically. I’ve been told many times by guys I’ve worked with that they are accustomed to doing a job and being overlooked. But in the studio, it’s all switched around. My sitter is kind of looking over my shoulder to see how I’m doing.

When do you let them look at the painting?

When the painting’s done. Then, they can see it.

I think what one picks up on—if you’ve ever sat for an artist before—there’s that amazing experience of having that person looking at you constantly. You’re seeing what that person’s going through. In the case of me painting, because I use so much paint and I’m taking so much paint away and putting so much back down, even if they’re not looking at the painting, they’re watching me work. They’re watching me get myself in a jam, or figure it out.

What do you talk about during sittings?

We talk about everything, everything, everything. About life, living, everything. We may talk about how is the work going.

Many of my sitters have already seen so many of my paintings that they kind of already know what is maybe a problematic area for me. Above all, there's a connection because so many of my sitters do construction-related work and I’m doing something with my hands. I think that if I were behind a camera, it would be a very different response to me.

Christian, 2011.
  • Courtesy the artist and Greg Kucera Gallery
  • Christian, 2011.
There's a macho-ness that comes through on the faces, and in the stances, of many of these guys. Do they ever give you any shit for being gay, whether overt or implicit?

For that subject, we should meet and write an entire thesis. First of all, the answer to that is no, I haven’t. However, that really is a great subject. I would say this, is that I’d be astonished if I got some weirdness in terms of being gay. I mean, everyone I work with must know I’m gay. I never, ever hide that from anybody ever, and I never would consider that. So my sitters totally know I’m gay and if they don’t, I tell them. There’s obviously that thing of any guy who’s spending the last 30 years painting all guys, well, you know what I’m saying?

I would never consider pulling any punches with that. I always let my sitters know, "In case you’re wondering, definitely I’m gay." I believe in laying everything out there. That, I’ve found, is a great question, it’s a large issue for me, because what you're asking me really, I feel, is, how is it possible that my sitters are comfortable enough perhaps, whether it’s comfort or self-conscious, but putting forth that machismo? Are they putting that forth consciously for me? Are they putting that forth because I’m gay and they want to kind of stake a claim that "You’re there, I’m here"? Maybe. I’ve never ever discussed this at length, and you’re bringing something up fantastic, because it definitely is all fully connected.

Do you ever make paintings without a live sitter?

No. Having a sitter gives me an incredible liberty to paint. When I have a sitter here, there’s so much to deal with that I simply don’t have time to get wrapped up in my plans or my intentions. There's this other person here with me, and we’re in this situation together, this really unusual situation.

Above all, I always say I like textured people. I don’t like flat people. And men or women who sit for artists have to be textured. You can’t do it if you’re a flat person. The kind of people I paint are, in my eyes, remarkable guys. A writer some years ago told me, "You seem to like sitters who personify a kind of daring in their life," and I said, "Yes. I guess you could say that." Anyone who’s out on the street in the middle of the day looking for work, yes, that’s my kind of person, because that’s what I was doing at that age.

You come from a working-class Italian family in upstate New York—what was your family like? What did your parents do?

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My mom worked at the air force base [Griffiss] at Rome, New York, where I was born. She was a key punch operator. My dad worked at the Revere something-or-other that made all those Revere pots and pans [Revere Copper]. There were three kids, and we moved to California when I was 10 years old, to LA, but those early years, I believe they definitely shaped me—the smell of the place, the look of the place, the light. It's probably very silly to remark this to you, but in many ways, I don't see my paintings like anyone else would—when I look at them, very often, I see some thread of that early place.

Javier, one of the drawings. Small, on paper, quiet.
  • Courtesy the artist and Greg Kucera Gallery
  • Javier, one of the drawings. Small, on paper, quiet.
What about the drawings? Are they studies for the paintings?

No, not at all. Some were made on the street, quickly, to attract sitters—show them what I do. They're totally the opposite of the paintings. It really annoys the hell out of me, making these drawings. It annoys the fuck out of me. I couldn't get the kind of texture that I was looking for, and mostly it's because of the activity—there's no paint! This is the very first time I've shown drawings in a commercial gallery show. I showed them once at the Tang Museum [at Skidmore College]. I showed them in a large show at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, not far from where I was born. But I have mixed feelings about seeing them together; I normally keep them totally private. But I told Greg, "Let's give it a shot."