"Vonn Sumner's fine paintings are equivocal visual wonders. They are painted worlds that reflect a bright clarity interrupted by mysterious bewilderments.

          Ideas and concepts are overwhelmed by empathic feelings suspending us in a tension between answers and questions provoking and teasing us into a long and careful looking...perhaps, the look of a lifetime?"

~Wayne Thiebaud, 2015



           "There is a silence about the works of painter Vonn Sumner. His canvases ask his viewers a question that takes a moment to consider: do you want to laugh, or cry, or both? [Sumner's paintings] form a kind of personal Commedia dell'Arte, whose main actor has a tragic, muted air. Sumner is wise enough to know how to engage you in his theater and also smart enough to stand back and let you react on your own terms. The paintings are generous, funny and just a bit opaque.

          Sumner, whose father Richard ran a Palo Alto frame store and gallery, grew up looking at art and thinking it over very carefully. Echoes of Bay Area painting, flavors gleaned from Morandi, Guston and Magritte, and a hint of Buster Keaton come together in his recent works through the filter of a sly, discerning intelligence."

~John Seed, writing in the Huffington Post in 2013



          "Vonn Sumner combines portraiture with symbols, painting contemporary persons as repositories of archetypal truths.  These persons shed their identities, and assume some other, profound significance amid a lush materiality."

~Bert Green, owner and director of Bert Green Fine Art in Los Angeles/Chicago.



          "Whether or not he is a people person, Vonn Sumner is a people painter. Although he often depicts spaces and buildings, Sumner has established a reputation as a figure painter of uncommon wit and sensitivity.... The people Sumner picks are certainly uncommon; they may be ordinary enough overall, in dress or in mien or in comport, but there’s always something about how they look that indicates that their behavior is out there a tad. Is Sumner looking for madness? ... Interestingly, we don’t get the feeling that Sumner has imposed that dash of lunacy on his subjects, but has found them in such full-blown states of dignified, low-key abandon. They own their eccentricities, even when it’s clear that Sumner has choreographed several of them into curious, open-ended pantomimes. That open-endedness allows us to own those eccentricities, too, to identify with Sumner’s subjects rather than just watch them enact their elaborated images. They are definitely performing, but they are revealing rather than disguising themselves in the process...."

~Peter Frank, Los Angeles based arts writer and curator, in an excerpt from an essay for the catalogue for the Riverside Art Museum exhibition "Vonn Sumner: The Other Side of Here."




           "...there's also something indefinably 'west-coast' about Sumner's work that suggests a spiritual homecoming of sorts...Sumner's ocean paintings...provide that most iconic of west coast struggles: between the individual and the sea. Unlike the tribes of surfers who stake territorial claims, Sumner's zen-seekers tend to (sink or) swim alone."

~Simon Herbert, Los Angeles based Arts Writer and Curator




          "Vonn's paintings are from a film that plays in his mind (and ultimately ours) that beckons us to ask who we are, what are we doing, and how did we get here?  It is true that his paintings are portraits of real people and if you know them, you instantly recognize them.  But these are psychological portraits that stretch back through art history like a kid pulling a rubber band and snapping it back to now, stinging us with [his] codified realism."

~Shane Guffogg, Los Angeles based artist and curator, in an excerpt from an essay he wrote for the catalogue that accompanied the Portraits show he curated for Pharmaka in 2006.




Excerpt from an interview with Vonn Sumner by the artist, writer, and film-director, Christopher Monger, conducted in Sumner's Signal Hill, CA studio in 2008 and first published in the catalogue for Sumner's 2008 show at the Riverside Art Museum:


"Vonn Sumner and I met through Pharmaka, a group of painters based here in L.A.  In our numerous discussions about painting we have often quoted the story of Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke driving through the Alps, stopping to admire the view and asking themselves, ‘Why don’t we feel that we can take on painting a landscape like this any more?’  And of course Richter’s response was to make paintings of the Alps – albeit ones that are clearly based on photographs.

I cite this because when I first saw Vonn’s paintings I thought he had asked the question ‘How can I be a portrait painter today and not have it be ‘a portrait painting?’  So I started our interview with this in mind.


CM: Are your paintings a way to be involved in portraiture without ‘painting portraits’?


VS: I don’t really think of them as portrait paintings, in the traditional sense, but, yes --I do think about this all the time - and I think: how can I paint the figure without ‘painting the figure.’


CM: But what’s wrong with us that we think that painting a traditional portrait is problematic? Portrait painters of the past obviously thought ‘There’s been portraits before, and I’ll just keep painting portraits and trust they’ll be different, trust they’ll be mine.’


VS: But then the printed photograph happened.


CM: Is that it?


VS: Not all of it. But it is a lot of it, in combination with the industrial revolution, mechanical reproduction of all kinds, cultural shifts in perception.  The role of painting changed.  


CM:  Is it the fact that if you want to record a face you can simply go and snap one?


VS: Yes, I think the need for descriptive, purely representational painting was removed.   But then photographic and painted portraits exist of Lincoln, for example – and there’s something to be said for those paintings of him, I prefer them to photographs.  So I don’t buy into the idea that the photograph completely supplanted painted representation, I just don’t particularly feel that’s what I need from painting.  I want the figure in some broad sense but I’m not really interested in what would be called 'realism.'


CM: What you seem to have done is to create some theatre of space.  While they are representational I don’t read any of these as ‘reality’ – I know that figure wading into the ocean is of your invention: You’re not recording something you saw at Long Beach.


VS: That image is something I ‘saw’ – it wasn’t objectively there but I ‘saw’ it...  My ‘mind’s eye.’


CM: So they’re not observational of an external reality.


VS: It is a combination of observation, internal subjective experience, memory, daydreams, etc.  The best way I can address that is to say that a lot of it, almost all of it, is intuitive fumbling about trying to understand my place in painting. I know I need to paint, I figured that out. I know this makes sense for me as a way of being in the world.  But there’s all kinds of painting and what’s my sensibility within that? It is a process of trying to find the territory that allows me to discover and invent pictures that are personal and meaningful.




CM: What kind of painting did you grow up with, what did you admire?


VS: All kinds of things. My father owned a picture framing shop, so I saw a lot of art up close. My parents took me to museums too, and I remember a Monet waterlily show in London when I was 10 or so that made a huge impact on me.

And I grew up in the Bay Area where Bay Area Figurative was a very popular thing. I loved David Park, Deibenkorn, Nathan Oliviera, etc., those guys trying to engage De Kooning and Giacommetti, but when I tried to do that it felt incredibly contrived -- like I was trying to reenact those painters.

I love the materials of painting deeply, but eventually I had to go beyond that and realize that’s not only what it’s about for me.  It’s a difficult thing for me to articulate, but I don’t think for me that painting is about the surface appearance.  It’s not about technique.  A lot of what of what was great about modernism was that obvious sensuous consumption of technique, of paint as surface. 


CM:  What’s hard to remember is that for people who’d been through the rigorous academic aesthetic and essentially Nineteenth Century formal training, for them to load a brush and careen it around a canvas was frightening, shocking -


VS: - Risky... But now it’s the opposite.


CM: Yes.


VS: My dad had been a painter in the 60’s and 70s – and I had been introduced to painting through that: De Kooning, Kline, Rothko, Newman and those guys.  I’ve had to learn art history backwards from there. When I was in school there was nothing rebellious about abstract paintings – that’s what you saw in banks, that’s what was in the lobbies of hotels. Paradoxically it felt subversive to make a figurative image and sure enough I got a lot of flack from many teachers about painting from the figure, drawing from the figure, making images and stuff. There was some contempt for that.  That’s totally shifted since I got out of school, now it’s embraced.


CM: So learning art history backwards, what was that like?  Did you get back to Piero Della Francesca and feel ‘I’m home.’


VS:  Yes. One of the ‘Aha!’ moments for me was in New York, when I was working at the Guggenheim and I was around all their great European moderns; Kandinsky, Klee, Albers, and I’d walk at lunchtime to the Met as often as I could and wander around with no purpose, just a ‘What will I see this hour?’  And I found these rooms no-one was in – guards hardly guarded them, and it was Siennese Renaissance mostly, some rectangles, some shaped like icons, clunky proto-renaissance, more like Giotto than Piero. I found them marvelous and they felt contemporary to me.  I thought ‘Why aren’t people making movies of these the way they’re mining comic books for scripts? – This is amazing!’ And it has to do with something that was so direct, a system of signs, codes, they’re raw, and to me it felt like punk rock.  Those artists weren’t technically great, if you compare them to Velasquez and Sargent, they’re akward.  You would even say that about Giotto if you’re making a virtuosic scale. 


CM: Which is the way art history was taught when I was in school – and still may be:  It was about technical virtuosity getting better and better until it was so good artists said ‘We don’t have to do this figurative stuff anymore, we’ve got it beat, let’s take on abstraction.’


VS:  Yes, that was part of the implied narrative.


CM: It was a sense that artists had ‘worn figurative painting out’.  For me that virtuoso narrative doesn’t make any sense, it falls apart the minute you look how good the cave drawings actually are.


VS: That’s right. I am in awe of the achievement of someone like Velazquez, I just never felt compelled to compete with that.  I prefer the relative clunkiness of Giotto or those Siennese painters I mentioned.  As I found those funny old paintings I thought here’s a quality that I want in my work, that honesty and earnestness.  It has to do with - I wouldn’t call it innocence exactly - but directness, communication. When I started really looking and seeing Giotto and Masaccio and Cimabue it felt like I’d found the source of the Nile.  There it is!!!


CM: I think of Cimabue as really the last Byzantine painter, he’s the crossover guy.  Giotto takes a scrubbing brush and tries to get rid of all the Byzantine influence but can’t quite, and by the time you get to Piero it’s gone.  But there’s a little of the Byzantine in yours.


VS: I’d love that.


CM: I always saw those patterned wallpapers in your earlier paintings as being tied to that.



CM:  Where did the patterns come from?


VS: The pattern came out of trying to address the allover idea of abstraction.  Early Frank Stella basically, coming out of Pollock.  It has to do with my own interest in how to get the non-objective art that I love to come together with the figurative.



CM: Your former paintings tended to be smaller – they’ve gotten bigger.  Is that having a larger studio?


VS: I’d wanted that before I moved and I realized I could do it here.  It came from getting to the point where I needed to open up the scale of it.


CM:  The former smaller portraits threw them into a lineage of older portraiture, especially Dutch portraiture, Holbein and Van Eyck I guess.  Who do you look at?


VS:  Certainly for those paintings I had certain people in mind, maybe Holbein even Piero Della Francisca profiles – people with hats on.  The thing was as I started using hats and I’d go to museums and notice paintings of people with hats everywhere and the odd thing was when they weren’t wearing hats!  It seems like if you did a statistical analysis of how many figures were costumed or not costumed the hats would win.  But, honestly, those paintings are not about ‘hats’ for me, they are about shape and color and character. They are a response to Morandi and Sean Scully as much as to any old master.


CM: We’ve talked of your love of Roman painting before.


VS:  Yes. I’d minored in art history for a while and studied the Renaissance – ‘the re-birth’ but no-one had said what was being re-born – and when I saw Roman painting it was a revelation to see that Piero and Masaccio and Giotto were pointing back to that. I had found a through line and felt ‘Oh yeah, I want to be in that number.’


CM:  But what you’ve not done, to your credit, is gone to those paintings and taken the space or the light or the color.  Your paintings could only have been painted after abstraction.  The space in these paintings is modernist.


VS: I hope so, for me the space in the painting is the thing, it is the ‘tone’ – that is everything in a way, nothing can be accomplished without that. I’m not interested in archaism. 


CM: But going back to the hats: When we look at characters in Giotto’s and Piero’s painting we just see these cool hats but their contemporaries would be reading ‘Oh that’s the bishop, that’s the cardinal’ – the hats showed their ranks.  What you’ve done is to take that aspect, where we look at those paintings and can’t ‘read’ what the hats mean and used it for your own formal devices.


VS: Formal for sure. But I think it’s also our cultural moment, there’s a disconnect.  I think that we’ve lost something - either by population or by media — and I don’t think we can all read signs the same way anymore.  And when I look at those paintings the joy for me is in the sign-ness of the hats – I couldn’t care less what they signify.  Sure, people at the time would know that’s the bishop, or that flower on the floor means he just had a daughter, but my very inaccessibility to those meanings draws me to them.



VS:  It’s about creating a pictorial and emotional, psychological space for the viewer to have an experience and if the experience is linear, or literal or verbal then I don’t get what I want from it.


CM: There would be no point in painting it.


VS: I don’t think so.  It has to be something beyond what I can say or verbalize. I know for sure that’s where it comes from because I don’t know any of the answers to any of the literal questions about these. But these images are as real to me as anything I could say verbally.


CM: You could have staged those things as photographs: We could go down to the beach and get that image of the man wading in but that doesn’t attract you.


VS:  Not at all.


CM:  You could have blown up the photo and framed it up by the afternoon.  Why paint it?


VS:  Because I’m particularly interested in the space and tone that painting alone makes for me, and in the process of making a picture by hand like that.  It is a different kind of time and space.


CM: It’s a step away from representation.


VS:  Absolutely – it’s not documentary.  A photograph always carries a documentary quality, even a surrealistic photo. Photography can’t unsettle me in the same way as a painting can and it has to do specifically with a certain kind of space and stillness.  A photo never has that same stillness, you know it’s about a moment, even something that’s been collaged in Photoshop.  You know it’s made of literal things, and there’s something else about painting that Magritte and De Chirico and many others exploited.  I don’t think it’s an accident that they chose to use painting – they were well aware of film and photography and a Man Ray photo can’t get as rich and mysterious as a de Chirico painting for me.  There’s something very strange about the space, time, and tone that a painting can have."

... (A longer version of this interview appears in the exhibition catalogue Vonn Sumner: The Other Side of Here)


Christopher Monger is an Emmy-Nominated screenwriter and film director whose credits as director include "The Englishman...Who Went Up a Hill, But Came Down a Mountain,"  "Special Thanks to Roy London," "Rachel Carson, A Sense of Wonder," and, as writer of the award winning HBO movie "Temple Grandin."  Monger grew up in Whales and studied painting at the Chelsea School of Art in London.  He lives in Los Angeles.

You can find out more about Christopher Monger here:


 photo: wrobertangell