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Thursday, October 30, 2003

In Their Own League

Ben Sakoguchi and the Baseball Reliquary Dispense “Plein Air” To Those Who Receive…

Now that the media-imposed myths accompanying the post-season have faded into the shadows at last—Red Sox and Cubs fail again—we can (hopefully, at least) move on to a consideration of more authentic myths tying together America and its national pastime. As is often the case when we do so, we will find the Baseball Reliquary hard at work.

There is a sentence in the catalogue accompanying the Reliquary’s recently-concluded exhibit at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, CA (for more details visit the Baseball Reliquary web site) which provides an excellent starting point for understanding the nature of their efforts and the seamless marriage between their “baseball world-view” and the artistic achievements of their most prominent collaborator, Ben Sakoguchi:

“A Reliquary artifact is not merely an object of veneration commemorating a key moment or individual…it functions as a window into larger themes that run throughout the game’s and the country’s history.”

The Reliquary’s insistence on locating a more encompassing and inclusive idea of “American-ness” than what we are fed by more institutional entities is centered in their wide-ranging collection of art and artifacts—many of which were on display in their most recent exhibition. American traits that all too often get pushed aside in times of manufactured crisis (such as the one we are now inhabiting) are the Reliquary’s stock in trade—irreverence, gentle but firm outrage at injustice, a sense of awe (without shock…) at the impossible feats and historical contradictions that co-exist in the game and the nation.

The Reliquary’s association with Ben Sakoguchi is, in light of the concepts mentioned above, its most perfect distillation of these themes. In the midst of a wide-ranging but somewhat diffuse artistic career, Sakoguchi came up with a staggeringly simple but infinitely powerful synthesis with his “Orange Crate Art” series of paintings in the 1980s.

“Orange crate art,” aside from being celebrated by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks in their song of the same name some years back, was a commercial distillation of an evocative artistic movement that flourished in California during the early decades of the twentieth century. The “plein air” painters were an outgrowth of the original “back to nature” pastoralism that formed in America in response to post-Civil War industrial expansion. (For a good overview of this subject, see T. Jackson Lears’ No Place of Grace.)

This larger force in American cultural history, of which the “plein air painters” were but a small but important part, was the original impetus for what emerged in the 1920s as a “counterculture.” The left coast pastoralists were a particularly significant force in the origin, care and feeding of what we now know as “the environmentalist movement,” and the “plein air” artists deployed this love of nature in a painterly strategy that wedded a hint of the manuscript illumination of the Middle Ages with the rugged sweep of the left coast landscape. The results were both artistically triumphant and politically successful, as their depiction of an earthly paradise contributed the aesthetic impetus for conservation—while simultaneously helping to spark a western migration in response to the tantalizing images of a “promised land.”

Ben Sakoguchi was able to take the formal conventions of “plein air/orange crate art” painting and fashion it into a multi-layered platform for images that could evoke a nostalgia for the dream of an earthly paradise while at the same time depicting the harsh, often surreal reality existing alongside it. His non-baseball work—the original jumping-off point for this bold, tricky, and unyieldingly challenging synthesis of old form and new content—is, as whole, a good bit edgier than his baseball paintings: this work has recently been appearing in the Da Vinci Gallery at Los Angeles City College. From present-day commentary on America’s odd attraction/repulsion with hypocrisy [“Crybaby”, above] to stinging yet oddly affectionate historical diatribes focusing on America’s “white cultural suppressive tendencies”, as depicted in the cunningly coy (but strangely sweet) “Barbed Wire Bobby-Soxers”, Sakoguchi has taken his template to realms rarely visited by other artists. A complete catalogue of his “orange crate art” series needs to be published; it is a singular achievement.

As noted, Sakoguchi’s “orange crate” baseball paintings tend to step back from this pointed commentary; given that the game is even more deeply immersed in its own aesthetic fiction-making—instant nostalgia, just add water—the juxtaposition of these elements makes for something that is gentler yet still self-reflective. In other words: less diatribe, more parody—and more of a painterly connection to the “plein air” movement which inspired the nameless orange crate artists who followed in their wake.

However, that shouldn’t suggest that Sakoguchi is simply mining the vein of nostalgia. While his work is softened by this unavoidable collision with baseball’s smothering context of self-congratulation, he still brings some teeth to his imagery, as in the masterful “Spitter”, which juxtaposes several key episodes in baseball’s hidden history of expectoration in a way that can only be described as, well, “tongue in cheek.”

Sakoguchi has produced several “orange crate paintings” that honor some of the inductees into the Reliquary’s “Shrine of the Eternals.” (An article discussing the 2003 induction ceremony appeared here in August.) In these paintings, Sakoguchi’s “tone” is lighter, and his color schemes shift toward those favored by the “orange crate art” painters: a noticeably more “printerly” color saturation than the textural gradations in “fine art” painting.

And yet somehow this “commercialized” color scheme is innately pleasing; its suitability to the subject matter, as demonstrated in Sakoguchi’s painting of 2003 Shrine of the Eternals inductee Jim Abbott, blends together elements that have a strong tendency to be mutually exclusive. The vanished orange groves and the snow-capped peaks invoke an ideal but non-existent southern California landscape; the brown hills that almost inconspicuously occupy the middle ground between these two mythic elements represent the “ordinary”, “real-life” obstacles that Abbott overcame in his singular success.

By drawing our eyes to the ordinary within the extraordinary, Sakoguchi has joined together “high” and “low” elements in a way that mirrors how baseball operates within the peculiar metaphysical space that scholars (and those in power who rely on their words) have called “the American mind.” As opposed to the more confrontational usages of the “orange crate” format in addressing broader social/aesthetic issues, the baseball paintings tilt toward understatement. They make use of the viewer’s innate yearning for nostalgic images associated with the received myths of the game, and then proceed to shift the terms of those images to a greater or lesser extent. There is a range of subtlety in the baseball paintings that may yet insinuate itself into the non-baseball works.

Sakoguchi’s sidelong look at baseball’s Edenic myth is not only evolving and deepening his own work, but it shows signs of being able to refashion the myth itself, if we will simply decide to pay attention. His visual juxtapositions are, at their best, capable of shifting the locus of our knowledge to create a more complete and complex understanding of the nature of that myth, and how it insinuates itself into the broader context of American culture.

Exploring the connections/dislocations between garden, frontier and wilderness is a peculiarly American task, but the irony is that such a task is often best performed by those considered to be “other” by a large plurality of Americans. Ben Sakoguchi, both “American” and “other,” has made a singular and significant exploration of these areas; by engaging his work, we can come to grips with—and, by so doing, ultimately synthesize—this dual nature.


Don Malcolm Posted: October 30, 2003 at 05:00 AM | 2 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Too Much Coffee Man Posted: October 31, 2003 at 02:54 AM (#613804)
The link to the reliquary site doesn't work.
There's html code stuck to it. The correct address is:
when you get there, go to "new exhibits online" and check out the flour tortilla bearing a likeness to Walter O'Malley!
   2. Jon Daly Posted: November 01, 2003 at 02:54 AM (#613811)
Interesting stuff, Don. I remember finding an online exhibit of baseball art that was sort of ashcan and sort of surreal. I was looking for it last week, but couldn't find it. These orange crate works are probably the most similar thing out there that I have seen.

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