If you've ever been 14 and moody, you'll be hard-pressed to look at the paintings of Justin Sonny Eagles without some kind of emotional response.
Working in oil on masonite panels "I prefer canvas," he says, "but I don't have the money" the 23-year-old, Long Island native paints hallucinatory portraits of people in states of turmoil, rage and despair.
"It's really painful art," says Jason Zacharias, the OpticalReverb Gallery curator who's showing Eagles' work along with that of others at The Creative Flow in Manitou Springs. "He's definitely wrestling with demons."
Eagles is not afraid of being heavy-handed: In "The Undertaker," for example, a soul-patchy guy in a fedora looms before a tombstone that reads "RIP Justin Sonny Eagles." In "Escape," a man looks at the hand bursting out of his belly; his expression mostly says, "Whoa."
Eagles is self-taught, and hasn't yet fully refined his technique. The subject of "The Violinist" appears to be bowing a piece of lumber with a chopstick. In "Pain of Pagliacci," a mirror at the feet of the eponymous clown (a stock character in Italian commedia dell'arte) floats in the black paint that constitutes the foreground in a large number of these paintings.
But "Pain of Pagliacci" also reveals the real pathos in Eagles' best work. The viewer has walked in on the clown while he's changing out of his costume. In his undershirt, wigless, his makeup immaculate, he stares back at us. We have surprised him, but he is not at all surprised, and the bleak resignation in his eyes both reproaches us and compels our sympathy.
Eagles says he was "born into manual labor" when describing his day job: cabinetry work in his father's business. But despite the heaviness in his words and images, he says, "I'm trying not to be an angry person."