Below is the text of my essay on the contemporary American artist Michael Sagato, written for Jack Geary Contemporary, published in the artist’s catalog titled Michael Sagato: Birds of a Feather on April 24, 2014. My essay was quoted by Artsy Editorial here.
LOOK! OUR BODIES IN PLAY
Michael Sagato’s paintings, each an intimate moment captured in oil on aluminum, arrive right in time for spring blossoms and the thawing of the Manhattan cityscape. The female trios in Love Me Love Me Love Me, People Watching, and 3 Birds of a Feather invoke the mythic threes: the Three Fates, the Three Muses, and the Three Graces. Consider Sagato’s Love Me Love Me Love Me alongside the Three Graces as depicted in Sandro Boticelli’s La Primavera. In both works, a triad of ethereal fair-haired women appears with arms and hands entwined, but Sagato focuses exclusively on the subjects of his pieces and the background falls away. He makes the gesture look easy: to zoom in and contain a single, specific instant. One thinks of Fabien Mérelle, Sagato’s French contemporary, and his ink and watercolors on paper that feature a single subject or juxtaposition against a white background, which intensifies the encounter between the viewer and the work. While Mérelle favors small-scale studies, Sagato’s large aluminum canvases allow for figures that are nearly life-size.
Sagato devotes himself to female subjects. Their bodies appear in varying degrees of undress while masks, animal heads, crowns, and other coverings conceal their heads and faces. His depictions of twenty-first century women raise pressing questions about power, sexuality, social norms, and moral attitudes — perhaps most of all for the female viewer. Sagato’s La Moderna Madonna, her naked breasts revealing nipple piercings, wears a gorilla mask and black lingerie bottoms while standing on a swing painted hot pink. The title of the piece calls to mind the longstanding virgin and child tradition in religious portraiture, but there is no baby Jesus in sight here. Is Sagato’s Madonna making a statement about herself as a modern woman who will not be defined by reproduction, a woman who can play on the swing by herself instead of ceding it to a child whose needs will eclipse her own? Is she aping society’s expectations of her femininity? Maybe instead of more questions or discussion, the painting invites action: agency and empowerment through the movement of the swing.
The women in Sagato’s Sandy (as in the hurricane) and René Magritte’s La Grande Guerre share a conversation about war and natural disaster punctuated by the hydrangea obscuring the female subject’s face in Magritte’s portrait and the floral wallpaper and head-covering made of sticks and twigs in Sagato’s. What conclusions do they come to about tragedy and the feminine, we wonder. Or is the statement here that despite what devastation and disorder befall the human world, the feminine will always retain its necessary ability to allure, to soothe, to contain? And how does Sagato incorporate the wallpaper (damaged during the hurricane proper) into his piece while making it look so natural? Sagato’s Sandy wears yellow kitchen gloves, which reminds us that his Madonna Moderna dons white evening gloves, and we must ask why Sagato’s women need to protect their hands. Given the precautions suggested by gloves, is there dirty work they simply will not do?
The use of humor and bravado, a kind of visually lyric joke meant to invite the viewer, is present in Sagato’s Fertility Time Bomb, where a woman tries to hide under a bed — or maybe she is looking for something — while a dynamite time bomb, attached to a cute and very much alive bunny resting on the mattress above, ticks away. We can identify her only by her legs sheathed in black stockings and her black kitten heels as they stick out from under the furniture.
The rough materiality and masculinity of Sagato’s pieces bring to mind the work on metal of Aaron Young. The honed-in realism of paintings by Jenny Morgan and Tomoo Gokita’s subject-driven compositions speak to the stark, powerful secrets emanating from Sagato’s scenes. Graffiti, street art, and the currency of symbols are present through the markings on the bodies of his subjects including butterflies, words, and stars. The street is a canvas and so is the body. This is exceptionally clear in the case of Sagato’s collaboration with graffiti artist Curtis Kulig in Love Me Love Me Love Me. Because the subjects are always female, one might ask whether all women are expected to be a canvas for the male artist/creator. It is of interest here that Sagato collaborates with friends who model professionally and who, in the off hours, play dress up at his Bowery studio with props made mostly by Sagato himself. During these interludes, he photographs his costumed accomplices in order to refer to the images later for his paintings. Sagato appreciates not only their beauty, but also their technique — they know how to angle their bodies in the ways that make them look best. He chooses to obscure their faces so their recognizable features don’t distract us from what Sagato is setting up. His process makes us ask: what is the difference between fashion campaigns and art? Between corporate billboards and personal social media pages? Between the self as composed by the other’s gaze and the self composed by (and for) self-inspection?
His series Birds of a Feather focuses on a naked female figure with loose long hair. A crown, itself adorned with colorful feathers, sits atop her head, and butterflies decorate her body. They are not meant to be literal tattoos, but rather symbols of the unique, and its infinite manifestations, within each of us. Like most of the female protagonists on Sagato’s aluminum stage, her face is obscured. But something important is different here: she looks at, or past, us with a pair of binoculars. And sometimes she holds the binoculars backwards, thus the act of looking does not bring things closer, but rather creates distance. What do the figures in the Birds of a Feather series capture with their binocular-enhanced eyes? We want to see it too! We may catch a glimpse of ourselves in the aluminum backdrop, which if blurred and incomplete may be all the more true.
Other kinship is present, perhaps the least suspected kind. For example, Sagato’s Work and Play speaks unequivocally to the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Bang installation of 886 antique stools made by Chinese craftsman and arranged in a rhizomatic structure for the 2013 Venice Art Biennale. What does the visual litany of three-legged stools by the revered Beijing artist known for aesthetic mastery and political activism, who grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution and was jailed by his own government for 81 days in 2011, have to do with Sagato’s portrait of five ladder-like chairs arranged askew, like a five-pointed star or a jack that’ll be scooped up in the palm of a child? This is a question that may not have obvious answers. But in the case of both pieces, one might use the alternate title Sit or Climb.
Sagato’s paintings playfully celebrate twenty-first-century women, their power, and their impossible choices by making us look again, wonder, and think. While conversant with past and present players, and artistic movements, in fascinating and productive ways, Sagato is most importantly doing his own thing. As he develops his visual language, he borrows and translates freely from advertising, photography, fashion, social media, street art, and the street itself. How do we frame ourselves, and each other, with our eyes, our gadgets, our technologies? How do we visually capture ourselves, and one another, while retaining spirit, movement, dynamism, freedom?