August 17, 2009
posted by Caroline Picard (please note: this is a draft of an essay to be published in a forthcoming catalogue; also the images inserted here are not the work that will appear in the show…except for the bear one; that’s a work in progress sketch)
Solo show by Hiro Sakaguchi
at Seraphim Gallery
People often shed old things—clothes, vehicles, countries—in order to adopt new styles, modes of production or places. Hiro Sakaguchi is no exception. He came from Japan as an undergraduate with a traditional Japanese art background. Upon arriving in Philadelphia he began to integrate his formative aesthetic experience with American culture. As evidence of his success, he has since achieved a BFA, an MFA and garnered an impressive CV with exhibitions around the world from Austria to Japan to Philadelphia. His work is included in public collections at The Woodmere Museum of Art and Night Kitchen Interactive. While such signifiers stand stiff and formal on paper, they point to an organic process of time, hard work and friendship. In little over a decade Sakaguchi has become an important member of the contemporary art community in one of America’s earliest cities. His success denotes talent, flexibility and an appetite for investigation; his ability to invest in what he loves. Such skills enable him to inhabit two worlds at once, that of the local: the resident of Philadelphia. A man who goes to work every day, comes home to make dinner, work in his studio or meet up with fellow artists around the corner. Yet also he inhabits a second world, that of the global: a man who was born in another country with a family still living there, to whom he still speaks in his native language. In an on-line interview, Sakaguchi said, “I do not consider myself a Japanese artist. I am an artist based in Philadelphia but I think I may be somewhat more global on a deeper level than artists who just show their art works at international art fairs.” He has a home in the States, a place from which he makes work. Yet he is also an expatriate.
Perhaps because he can inhabit two positions at once Sakaguchi is flexible in his art as well. He manages to integrate variant perspectives and styles, incorporating them into a single world that is framed by the dimensions of a canvas. “Since, I lived in both [Japan and America], my imagery comes from both. I guess maybe I am trying to put both place together to make a world….” Using the guiles of imagination, he plays with scale such that airplanes are as big as fish in one painting, pinwheels as large as airplanes in another. His drawing style borrows from Asian animation, yet also there is a fluidity and freedom to the work, which, in preserving its innocence, also feels American. The education system in Japan is rigid, a foreign notion to our American ideas of artistic expression. While we encourage artists to challenge existing systems, the Japanese school system demands that its pupils accomplish specific didactic examinations before anyone is encouraged and supported by the state to continue their arts education. It is as though Sakaguchi escaped somehow and upon finding new ground was able to re-apply his background unrestricted. On the canvas of Sakaguchi, two literal countries have influence, meanwhile the mediating third (and most powerful), is Sakaguchi’s imagination. It is never clear what country the paintings exist in, just as it is never clear how big the objects and landscape depicted might be. Any and all machines could be miniature toys as easily as they might be life-size objects. In a real way such questions are of no consequence. What is significant is that the imagination provides essential criteria through which Sakaguchi’s worldview comes across.
Between those poles of scale a constant tension exists, a stylistic tension that is mirrored in each painting’s narrative. Small bastions of suburban calm are surrounded by swirling hurricanes, airplanes fill the sky over a sea of urban rooftops, and a wall divides a small utopia from the bombs of tanks and horseman. Elements of the work struggle against one another in dualistic battles where often something idyllic is threatened by some kind of violence. Unlike the others, Ant Farm, expands beyond a ‘this or that’ conflict, describing instead a series of simultaneous vignettes, each with its own inferred complexity. Yet here also, the diminutive scale of the narrative mitigates the intuited circumstance of each underground storyboard; the characters, after all, are like ants. In each of Sakaguchi’s paintings, a number of forces work at once, whether narrative or structural. Rather than an overarching confusion, however, the paintings afford a sense of innocence and wonder. As in daydreams, the visual language with which any threat is described is so charming as to seem benevolent. It is as if Sakaguchi is both a ten-year-old boy and a thirty-year-old man, interpreting his imaginative impulses from both perspectives at once.
In many of Sakaguchi’s paintings preliminary lines lay beneath a wash, showing the architectural deduction that took place in his creative process. Such lines show the scaffold, or rationality, originally used in the painting’s construction. Here Sakaguchi reveals the way his world was constructed, the way his imagination works and perhaps also how he can occupy various positions at once. “I try to think in my own way and make my own rational thinking in my art making.” Like a trail of breadcrumbs, those lines map out the bare bones of that rationality—the path by which his imagination was able to merge different influences into one cohesive picture. By leaving outlines around his figures, he invites the viewer to travel down the same path, to occupy the same various positions at once. The viewer is welcome in this work. As his artist statement admits, Sakaguchi creates “a fictional realm that is relevant to [his] experience as an artist and an individual in this global society” and by creating that realm, he invites the viewer to consider him or herself in a larger context.
Nevertheless, Sakaguchi leaves much of his canvases blank. The creatures and worlds he constructs, at times, appear abandoned. It is as though their creator, upon apprehending the solution of scale that was being sought, no longer needed to complete the peripheral context in which those objects sit. Here too there is an experience of freedom and liveliness: that a painting is not an obligation to be fleshed out entirely, corner to corner. Rather, a painting is finished when its parts can breathe. Here too there is a generosity in his work, both because the objects he portrays are allowed to remain in various stages of becoming, yet also because the viewer can complete the picture with his or her own imagination. Somehow, Sakaguchi seems to suggest that the individual has agency in the world, whether the world of an artist’s imagination, or the physical world that extends in common.
Sakaguchi is not simply an artist. He is also a curator, a professor, an Installation Technician at The Philadelphia Museum of Art; art is in every aspect of his life, whether it is in the preservation of famous works, the tutoring of young upstarts or providing exposure for other artists through group exhibitions. As in the rest of his life, he is comfortable inhabiting these roles simultaneously. While he certainly left something behind when he came to the United States, he also managed to preserve what he had already learned. He has cultivated that early experience in Asia and grafted it together with his life in Philadelphia. What we see in “Idle Daydreams” are the fruits of that experience, transmuted by his imagination—a country of another sort boasting, perhaps, an even deeper mystery of free will.