Artist Profile | Michael Sagato: Visualizing Obscure Sorrows

Artwork: “Onism” by Michael Sagato.

To fully appreciate the artwork in Michael Sagato’s new exhibition Pareidolia, opening at De Re Gallery in Los Angeles on Oct. 22, you’re going to need a dictionary. And we’re not talking Webster’s. You’ll need to refer to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig, an online guide to made-up words that describe profound human feelings. “It wasn’t so much the words but the definitions themselves that resonated with me,” says Sagato, who stumbled upon the online dictionary while researching palinopsia, a neurological disorder where a person cannot “un-see” things. “The feelings of existentialism conjured by his writing inspired the work in this show.”

The image at top references Onism,”the frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time,” represented by a woman seemingly torn in three parts, each painted in different hues. Another term, Sonder, defined as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own,” is a sensation Sagato has experienced while biking around Manhattan. The painting of the same name (below), is a tangle of cut-up and rearranged bicycles.

Artwork: "Sonder" by Michael Sagato.

Artwork: “Sonder” by Michael Sagato.

Shards and strips of metal act as waves in a turbulent sea on which a pile-up of boats rides in “Ellipsism”, defined as a “sadness that you’ll never be able to know how history will turn out, that you’ll dutifully pass on the joke of being alive without ever learning the punchline.” Kenopsia, defined as the “eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet” is depicted in a jumble of brightly colored doorways, storefronts, and homes, some with shattered roofs.

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Artwork: "Kenopsia" by Michael Sagato.

Artwork: “Kenopsia” by Michael Sagato.

While Sagato won’t share the specifics of each venue in the painting (left), he says every door, wall, and window is meaningful to him. “It’s important to me that the viewer imagines their own place and goes there for a moment,” he says.

Objects aside, Sagato also examines these hard-to-define emotions through facial expressions. In “Enoument”, the face of a blonde, blue-eyed woman is split vertically in two. Her right eye is fixed on the viewer; the left looks upwards. Given the definition of the title (“the bittersweetness of having arrived here in the future, where you can finally get the answers to how things turn out in the real world”), one would suspect the right side is quite literally facing the future; the left side is stuck in the past, searching for answers, perhaps from some deity above. In “Opia”, a woman’s face is again halved, this time horizontally and just beneath the eyes, drawing “a hard line between being invasive and vulnerable,” Sagato says.

The artist is fascinated by the human form (particularly the feminine) because “it offers a limitless stage for lines, color and interpretation,” he says. “It’s not that I prefer to paint women. I do paint men sometimes, but that only seems to work when they are subdued. For example, if a woman is looking you in the eye in a painting, she’s seducing you. If a man is looking you in the eye, he’s confronting you.”

One could argue that men also seduce, and women confront, with the eyes. Sagato himself seems to contradict this with “Kuebiko”, a tiled painting named after “a state of exhaustion inspired by acts of senseless violence” that indicates fragmentation in both subject and form. The male gaze here is neither confrontational or seductive. It is one of pain.

Artwork: "Kuebiko" by Michael Sagato.

Artwork: “Kuebiko” by Michael Sagato.

The subject is Douglas Hobson, a homeless man Sagato has known for years. The Vietnam War vet sits on the corner of Lafayette and Spring Street in SoHo. Through many conversations, Sagato learned that Hobson was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade explosion, gassed with Agent Orange, and captured. He currently suffers from PTSD, liver damage, and arthritis. “He is one of the kindest, gentlest people I have ever met and there is a look in his eyes that I can only describe as broken,” Sagato says. “He is now 65 years old and has spent his entire adult life waiting for his military benefits. I wanted to do this piece to raise awareness of the lack of care and funding we give our injured veterans.”

Sagato says this piece’s creation was “a painstaking process: hand-cutting each piece of wood, assembling them on a sheet of Masonite and doing the oil painting of the subject on it, and then dissembling the tiles and shards of metal and pouring epoxy resin on them to make the pieces appear to be ‘exploded’ and suspended in mid-air.”

Sagato ultimately aims to slow viewers down and inspire self-examination. “Since the rise of social media, we have conditioned ourselves to flip through images so quickly that we are losing the nuance of the overwhelming amount of information we now have access to,” he says. “I designed this exhibit to make the viewer stop, read the definition of the piece they’re standing in front of, and relate it to an experience that is personal to them.”

It is curious, then, that the artist paints on aluminum, a technique that adds undulation to the images and provides the viewer a glimpse of his own subtle reflection in the artwork. Even more curious is the show’s title, “Pareidolia”, a term not found in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. It is the name of a psychological phenomenon in which the mind sees patterns where none exist. (Ever heard of someone saying they saw the image of Jesus on a piece of toast? That’s pareidolia.) Perhaps the titles and the paintings are less related than they seem?

Whatever the conclusions reached, Sagato hopes people will take away the sense that “despite how common it is to disagree with ideas like God, race or politics, the visceral experience of being human is so similar – no matter how obscure you think your thoughts are. Knowing that, I hope to make people feel more connected to a collective consciousness. “