Unsing Hiro: Japanese-Born Artist's Whimsical World

By Roberta Fallon
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Apr. 27, 2011

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Fantastic voyage: Hiro Sakaguchi's Hibachi engine boat.

Bad things do not happen in Hiro Sakaguchi’s world, but the threat of bad things is everywhere. Which is why it’s hard to see the Japanese-born artist’s depictions of violent nature and vulnerable humanity without thinking of the recent cataclysmic events in Japan. But the Philly artist’s works, now in the Morris Gallery at Pennsylvania Academy, are not meant to serve as direct social commentary. Rather, Sakaguchi’s drawings, paintings and sculptures are the musings of an outsider who sees the world, imperfections and all, yet accepts and loves it to death.

Sakaguchi, a Nagano Prefecture native who came to the U.S. for art school, has been in Philadelphia since 1990. A community- spirited and hard-working artist who teaches at PAFA, he has curated several group exhibits of local artists at Seraphin Gallery, where he is represented.

As one who acutely feels at a distance from both his adopted and home countries, Sakaguchi’s message is that we’re all solitary voyagers in life. Bad stuff happens but don’t forget that beauty, happiness and funny things happen, too. His philosophy is heard loud and clear in his works.

Sakaguchi’s pastel-colored drawings and paintings, with their crisp illustrational lines and improbable action heroes (a hiker strides a log attached to the wings of two, side-by-side, in-flight airplanes) evoke a cartoon world where everything is larger than life. While there is no clear story arc to the ensemble of works, a loose narrative is suggested—something dreamy, lonely and, ultimately, contented.

No bloodshed though. Sure, there are spewing volcanoes, a swirling hurricane and, most memorable, a giant marauding brown bear. These are archetypal depictions of what happens before storm or battle. Like Dorothy’s besieged farm house in Kansas, Sakaguchi’s house, in the oil painting, “Eye of the Hurricane,” stands alone, sitting calmly before it is swept up. His candy-colored hurricane is like a polka-dot-clad clown threatening with a water balloon.

The artist’s point of view about these suggested earth-shaking events is one of wry resignation, which makes the works emotionally neutral. Sakaguchi’s sweet, whimsical take on things exemplifies the world of male artists whose work plays with the gentler side of childhood—toys, cars, airplanes and monsters. (Other locals who live in this genre include Space 1026ers Thom Lessner, Ben Woodward, Andrew Jeffrey Wright and Adam Wallacavage, to mention a few). Japanese superstar artists Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara also tread whimsically on childhood icons, usually adding humor—and a bad-boy wink and a nod. And like those artists, Sakaguchi self-censors the bad right out of the picture, not from some fear or loathing but because of his life-affirming philosophy.

With their soft colors and beautiful drawing style, Sakaguchi’s 2-D works are lovable. For the collaborative print piece, “My House is Your House,” the artist gave a woodblock print of a house and a cutaway of an ant colony under it to six artist friends and asked them to “make it their own by working over it,” according to the wall card. The resulting six-print piece welcomes you into the exhibit with its message of friendship.

“Hiro Sakaguchi: No Particular Place to Go.” Through Aug. 28. Free. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Morris Gallery, Historic Landmark Building, 118 N. Broad St. 215.972.7600. pafa.org

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1. Michael Andre said... on Apr 27, 2011 at 08:56AM

“It's a long long way from Nagano. It's nice Hiro made art of his trip. May we all be so wryly resigned.”

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