Sakoguchi’s acerbic style melds elements of figuration, history painting, and Pop in works that critique American cultural values and ahistorical Californian idealism. By turns sentimental and brutal, his work intertwines storybook American political history with the personal narratives that prove the lie of exceptionalism, and is informed by his own biography as a Japanese-American citizen during World War II, when he and his family were incarcerated in an internment camp, and the excesses of the post-war era.
After completing graduate studies at UCLA in 1964, Sakoguchi became associated with the emerging painters around Cecil Hedrick and Jerry Jerome’s Ceeje Gallery. Located at the far end of La Cienaga Boulevard’s gallery row, Ceeje supported a vibrant program of eccentric, mythic, and personally intimate figuration—a contrast to the cool conceptualism consolidating in Southern California at Ferus Gallery. Sakoguchi first experimented with multi-part paintings and modular canvases in the late 1960s, eventually discovering the serial and clustering conventions that define his practice. The density and intensity of Sakoguchi’s early work drew comparisons to Hieronymous Bosch in their delirious portrayals of consumerist abundance bolstered by state violence and exploitation.
Sakoguchi is best known for the series Orange Crate Labels, begun in the mid-1970s and later reprised in the mid-1990s. These 10x11-inch panels borrow their format from commercial illustrations found on wooden crates, which espoused the virtues of citrus and the values of its growers. As a child, Sakoguchi regularly observed stacks of crates in the grocery run by his parents in the “Orange Empire” of the San Bernardino Valley. Each panel appropriates the basic elements of a vintage label—a title set in alluring typeface that also names a particular brand or variety, the word “orange,” and an image of the fruit—brought together in an inspirational composition of ambiguous ideology and questionable perspective. Sakoguchi’s acrylic-on-canvas works repackage objects of satire in the language of fresh produce, ripe for the selling. Whether the artistic movement of postmodernism, David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan, iconic images of the Vietnam War, or a local crew of Surf Nazis, these repeated invocations of racism, xenophobia, and militarism in Orange Crate Labels provide dark commentary on the bounty of the Golden State.
The exhibition also features works from Bombs, 1983, a series comprised of mostly single-panel diptych airbrush paintings, made over four months during a period of tense political escalation in the Cold War. Drawing on imagery produced by scientific and clinical researchers for the U.S. military, the “hard-edge” realism is a searing indictment of nuclear armament—a condemnation shared by his colleague and friend Vija Celmins. The more recent suite of 15 panels, Towers, 2014, renders the surveillance systems and austere structures of the camps where Japanese residents and US citizens were incarcerated during World War II. Sakoguchi has remembered his time interned in Poston, Arizona, as a place of “mostly browns and grays.”