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. Or perhaps that uncommon wit and sensitivity belongs to his subjects, and, like a good casting director, Sumner just knows whom to pick to paint.
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? Are these asylum residents or “street people”? No, they don’t seem quite so far gone; they all seem as if they are quite rationally choosing to seem a bit irrational, as if the doubletake-inducing personas Sumner renders are the secret identities of men (almost never women) just slightly fed up with their humdrum existences who have been granted permission to allow their, er, creative sides, their right brains, to peek through the herniated membrane of social restraint.
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. Imagine a Mardi Gras of the mind rather than the body, where everyone decks out as their favorite odd gesture, and you have Vonn Sumner’s world in a nutshell – a nutshell wherein everyone’s only a little bit nuts.