Jeff Sonhouse - New Now London Tuesday, July 13, 2021 | Phillips

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  • Arresting and direct, Jeff Sonhouse’s I Swear on Everything I Love makes powerful use of the clean, graphic style and innovative use of materials that have become associated with the New York-based artist. Instantly recognisable, Sonhouses’s powerful body of work focuses almost exclusively on African American men, their faces often covered with harlequin masks and adorned with found materials, their expressions inscrutable. Preoccupied with constructions of Black masculinity and its representation within Western culture, Sonhouse draws on the long history of portraiture alongside comic books, media images and the work of artists as diverse as Picasso and Ed Paschke in his practice.


    Combining oil paint, charcoal and steel wool, this confidently executed frontal portrait presents the bust of a smartly dressed, Black male who stares directly out at us, his gaze at once challenging and engaging. Although his face is largely obscured by the black Harlequin mask, the roughly cut holes revealing eyes, nose, mouth and textured hair draw attention to these disconnected, depersonalised features in a manner that highlights the deindividuation of the Black male in contemporary American society and within its representative modes.  At the same time, the mask provides a layer of anonymity and inscrutability for his subjects, who instead are able to define their identity on their own terms, outside of the white gaze. 
    'These characters escape the identity trap of our current politics that ends in Blackness being a set of commodifiable types […] The figures in Jeff Sonhouse’s paintings show us what African Americans, Caribbean people, and others from the African diaspora might be when our imagination is not so yoked to the oppression-degradation/heroic transcendence dialectic.'
    —Seph Rodey, Hyperallergic

    With their intense focus and obscured features, Sonhouse’s portraits recall the shock of Francis Bacon’s visceral screaming pope paintings, compounded here perhaps by the inclusion of overtly religious iconography. Just as Bacon’s iconic popes were a series of variations on Velasquez’s 1650 Portrait of Innocent X, Sonhouse’s consistent use of the harlequin pattern recalls Picasso’s Rose Period Saltimbanques. More than a straightforward act of homage to the Spanish master however, in appropriating the motif and using it as a mask, Sonhouse also inverts Picasso’s infamous adoption of African and so-called ‘Primitive’ iconography.

    Sonhouse’s flair for mixing pattern, colour, and material is well represented in I Swear on Everything I Love, the bright, bold sections of the background and its assortment of figures contrasting to the black suit and rigid geometric composition of the monochrome mask worn by the central figure. As well as notable exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, the California African American Museum and the Atlanta Contemporary Art Centre, Sonhouses’s work can be found in public collections including the Rubell Family Collection, Miami and the Nasher Museum of Art at Drake University. 

    • Provenance

      Tilton Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2006


I Swear on Everything I Love

signed, titled and dated 'I Swear on Everything I Love Jeff Sonhouse 2006' on the reverse
oil and mixed media on wooden panel
76.2 x 34.2 cm (30 x 13 1/2 in.)
Executed in 2006.

Full Cataloguing

£20,000 - 30,000 

Sold for £107,100

Contact Specialist

Simon Tovey
Head of New Now Sale
+44 20 7318 4084

New Now

London Auction 13 July 2021