The Unauthorized History of Baseball
((CABRAL + STEFAN MART) * BASEBALL) = BEN SAKOGUCHI
”The Unauthorized History of Baseball’s” Developing Legacy
Ben Sakoguchi has done it again. And again. If you go to Los Angeles City College’s Da Vinci Gallery this month, you will see what I mean.
You may remember our exploration of his “orange crate art” (OCA) baseball paintings in these pages a couple of years back (you can find the article in the archives, but—alas—you won’t find the images); if not, here’s a nickel tour. We characterized Ben as the inheritor of a painting tradition that engaged a key myth in America—the myth of a pastoral paradise.
In that earlier article, we noted that Sakoguchi tended toward a gentler thematic approach with his OCA paintings dealing with baseball. In his new exhibition. “The Unauthorized History of Baseball in 100-Odd Paintings” (there are, in fact, 120 of them), that has changed.
Oh, how that has changed. As Sakoguchi became more immersed in creating a series that could encompass the entire history of baseball and its relationship to American culture, he found themes and subjects similar to those he had explored in his non-baseball OCA paintings. And in this collection, he has brought those themes home with a vengeance.
Of the 120 paintings in the series, 26 (22%) deal with subjects pertaining to questions of race or racism. Nine of these deal with Jackie Robinson and various aspects of his career. However, these are far from the most pointed examinations of the issue: for that, we must turn to Sakoguchi’s “tribute” to Cap Anson, one of the pillars of nineteenth-century baseball, whose 3000-hit, Hall of Fame career is eclipsed by his echoing command on one summer day in 1884: “Get that ###### off the field!”
But Sakoguchi goes further. His painting “Gentlemen’s Agreeement” highlights the back-room policies imposed and enforced by baseball for more than sixty years. When you put this painting alongside another of his works in the exhibition, entitled “Rednecks” (featuring a gallery of figures spanning Anson’s time all the way up to John Rocker), you can see the subversive undercurrent in Ben’s work: the design of each painting is mimicking that of the Confederate Flag.
Sakoguchi likes to draw startling, jagged, and even surreal parallels in these paintings. In fact, 33 of the paintings in the new group (28%) feature “two-shots” of players or individuals shown either as contrasts or “hidden selves.” The one most pertinent to the question of race is the painting entitled “Cubanos,” where Ben explores the taboos of skin pigmentation (light-skinned Cuban Dolf Luque is “eligible” to play in the 1920s milieu of baseball, while dark-skinned Cuban Martin Dihigo is “ineligible”).
It isn’t surprising that Sakoguchi would be interested in “otherness” as it is manifested in baseball. After all, we are talking about a Japanese-American who, as a very young boy, was interned at Manzanar, one of America’s “detention centers” during World War II. From an artistic standpoint, Ben’s interest in color probably stems from the early realization of how much importance it seemed to have in the minds and actions of those in power in America. As a painter, Sakoguchi wields a palette of colors that covers the artistic waterfront—from Impressionism to “plein air” to pulp art and back again.
Some of his most arresting images, however, are reserved for another casualty of American history—the Indian. During the deadball era, there were several Native Americans who fashioned notable careers in spite of their “otherness.” It could be claimed that the lone reason for their assimilation into the American culture of that time was located in their abilities on the baseball diamond. All of these themes are captured masterfully in “Chiefs,” Sakoguchi’s tribute to Chief Meyers and Chief Bender.
Sakoguchi has also mined the imagery of baseball that links the game with war, patriotism and other knee-jerk topics that people in present-day America use as tools of divisiveness and demonization. Eleven of the paintings (just under 10%) touch upon these themes, and they cover the full spectrum of baseball’s presence in American history. In “National Past Time,” Sakoguchi conjures up a baseball setting for the Civil War, making a comic contrast between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas (the height difference between the celebrated debate opponents has been exaggerated, with Douglas looking like a nineteenth-century version of Eddie Gaedel) that is nevertheless only half the story on the canvas. In “All-American Boy,” Ben’s colors are at their most impressive as he examines the two sides of heroism attached to the deadball era’s most celebrated role model, Christy Mathewson. Moving up to the present day, Sakoguchi has some fun with our current “red-blue” stereotypes with two paintings depicting Democratic and Republican presidents in that wearying-but-time-honored-act of throwing out the first pitch.
In all of this, Sakoguchi is stretching the conventions of his “orange crate” template, often straying away from the obligatory background landscape of orange groves, itself an evocation of the more expansive “plein air” movement. In fact, of the paintings in this collection, only 27 of them (22%) feature this trademark image of orange crate art. As his “unauthorized history” evolves (reports indicate that Ben is not even close to finishing this project as yet), one suspects that such pictorial references will continue to decline in frequency.
They are, in fact, almost completely absent from the most topical of the paintings, which deal either with recent events and/or baseball’s linkage to the entertainment world. Here the realistic style starts to stretch itself into the world of caricature, presaging another direction for the series to explore as it continues. As you might expect, Sakoguchi has found a treasure trove of visual ideas around the ongoing steroids controversy. He substitutes the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge for those orange groves in “Bash Brothers,” where he pushes his pun-making to the limit by not only using the common OCA tagline “full o’ juice,” but stuffs the orange peel down the viewer’s throat with the extra epithet “Juiced!”
One of the more amusing variations on the steroids theme actually does interpolate the orange grove motif into it: in “Role Models,” Sakoguchi contrasts the physiques of Babe Ruth and Arnold Schwarzengger (a “before and after steroids” juxtaposition). In “’96 NL MVP”, though, the subject turns darker, as Ben creates a double-edged memorial to the late Ken Caminiti.
Baseball and Hollywood is another topic that clearly fascinates Sakoguchi, who devotes 12 paintings (10%) to some aspect of that checkered relationship. There is a good historical sweep here, from a depiction of all the actors who played Babe Ruth to Rita Hayworth, from Joe and Marilyn to “Fear Strikes Out.” Maybe the most fanciful and far-fetched, though, is Ben’s tongue-in-cheek tribute to American pop culture’s queen of reach-and-grab, Madonna, shown in two contrasting guises—the first a representative image of her in “boy toy” mode, the second showing her as she appeared in the film about the All-American Girls Baseball League, “A League of Their Own.” The visual design here, while still incorporating those orange groves, is sly and salacious, and the color scheme shows the extent of Ben’s ongoing experimentation. All that, and a wonderfully punning title, too (“Miss Play”).
And while we’re on the subject of women, we should note that despite the predominance of males in baseball, the fairer sex is quite well represented in Sakoguchi’s history. In addition to the women from Hollywood, we have paintings honoring a range of women athletes (Babe Didrikson, paired—appropriately—with Babe Ruth; Jackie Mitchell; Toni Stone; Ila Borders) and other significant women in baseball’s history (Maud Nelson, the original Baseball Bloomer Girl; Rachel Robinson, the likely reason for Jackie’s success on the thorny road of integration). There a total of 14 paintings depicting women (about 11%); that’s probably still too low, but there’s still Effa Manley, Susan Sarandon, and Kim Ng on the horizon for Ben’s tireless brush.
The most wonderful female image in the set, however, is no glamour puss. Sakoguchi’s association with baseball’s great alternative Hall of Fame and historical anti-institution, the Baseball Reliquary, has motivated him to tackle subjects with some relationship to their activities. Many of the paintings in Sakoguchi’s previous work, as well as eleven (just under 10%) in the current collection, honor members of the Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals.
There is a twelfth painting in the set, though, that honors one of the greatest and most celebrated baseball fans ever; a woman for whom an annual Baseball Reliquary award is given; a lady whom, if she’d hadn’t lived, could not have been invented—the one and only Hilda Chester, the epitome of baseball fanaticism. In “Fan Attic,” Ben pulls out all the stops, garlanding the garrulous Hilda (replete with cow bells) with a rosary of oranges, suffusing the background with even more orange, allowing him to substitute Ebbets Field (the scene of Hilda’s legendary antics) for the obligatory orange groves. It’s glorious, delirious, and definitely “full o’ juice.”
But that’s not Ben’s “final word” on fanaticism in this set of paintings. With spring training just a few days away, baseball fans will once again face the often-overwhelming cacophony of slings, arrows, and harshly-inflected accents that characterize the game’s most contentious rivalry. No, not me (and some of the rest of you) vs. the Baseball Prospectus, but the Boston Red Sox vs. the New York Yankees. As a left coast artist, Sakoguchi has taken the only viable perspective on that not-so-hidden East Coast cultural fault line—a perspective that, when you examine it, is instantly apt and, dare I say it, psychologically accurate as well. The title, too, is similarly inspired—especially if you take the time to recall that not so long ago, people commonly referred to ballparks as “barnyards.”
It is in images such as this one that Ben Sakoguchi shows an affinity with another school of artists, one tied together not by proximity or nationality but by a similar perspective on the world and its follies. Of course I am having some fun with the denizens of this site by creating a mock equation to serve as the title of this tribute to a wonderfully inventive artist, but those two names—Mexican muralist, political cartoonist, and poster designer Ernesto Garcia Cabral and the mysterious German graphic artist Stefan Mart—are kindred spirits with Sakoguchi. It took baseball to push Ben into the realm of caricature and surrealism, moving beyond his strong affinity for impressionistic composition and coloring. I suspect he may go somewhat further in that direction with his subsequent work, and possibly take his place alongside these two masters of color, composition, and caricature.
There’s no doubt about it now: Ben is in the big leagues, and he’s there to stay.
“The Unauthorized History of Baseball in 100-Odd Paintings” is the featured showing in the Baseball Reliquary’s exhibition, Winter Ball, on display at the Da Vinci Gallery, Los Angeles City College, 855 North Vermont Ave, Los Angeles. The exhibition also features baseball-inspired works by local artists Michael Guccione, Greg Jezweski, and Curtis Wright. Exhibition dates: February 6—March 4. Admission is free. For more information, call (626) 791-7647.
For an additional selection of images in the Unauthorized History of Baseball exhibition, vist Ben Sakoguchi’s site at:
For more information about the Baseball Reliquary, visit their site at:
For more information about Stefan Mart, visit this site:
For more information about Ernesto Garcia Cabral, visit this site:
Posted: February 10, 2006 at 04:44 PM | 23 comment(s)
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