A fun, unusual look at the history and cultural impact of baseball is the topic of a new art exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The paintings in the exhibit, entitled The Unauthorized History of Baseball in 100-Odd Paintings: The Art of Ben Sakoguchi, will appeal lovers for the unique medium and baseball fans for celebrating the game so thoroughly.
The exhibit features over 100 colorful, image packed paintings taking a varied, unblinking look at baseball, the players, history, negative aspects, whimsical elements and highlights of more than 100 years. Timed with baseball season and the Skirball’s Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American major exhibition, the Sakoguchi baseball paintings go on display Thursday, April 7. They will be on view until Sept. 4, 2016.
For his collection looking at baseball, from myth to reality, Sakoguchi used the detailed, small format of classic California orange crate labels from the late 19th and early 20th centuries as his creative template. Those iconic labels romanticized California.
In these pieces, Sakoguchi employs arcylic paint on canvas sqaures made to look like the old crate lids. Drawing from his background as the son of a grocer and avid baseball fan, the artist has given each lid an image of an orange, a California town name, a particular brand and a theme like the classic crates; but, the theme on each of these is tied to baseball.
“Ben Sakoguchi’s dynamic and thoughtful series serves as a kind of ‘people’s history’ of baseball,” according to Skirball Museum Director Robert Kirschner. He sheds light on overlooked and forgotten aspects of baseball’s history including the role of women, Native American players and immigrant ones, lesser known moments in baseball history, and ignominious players. “Sakoguchi’s unique paintings counter the idealized notion of the game and highlight the contributions of marginalized populations to American culture,” added Kirchner.
The Skirball exhibit groups the canvases by a number of themes such as High Jinks, Segregated Baseball and Global Baseball. The groupings pull together the myriad images, whether for whimsical juxtaposition or educational context.
Each crate image has many layers of images or many people to tell that story. For example, the Hair Ball, shows Oscar Gamble, Dock Ellis and Johnny Damon in all their tonsorial splendor. Some look at baseball history, such as DH1, which features Ron Blomberg in 1973 as the first designated hitter in the majors, and Color Blind, about Jackie Robinson. Other celebrate little known historical elements, such as Nam Ball, which features Roy Gleason, the only major leaguer to serve in Vietnam, where he earned a Purple Heart and reportedly lost his World Series ring.
The prints do not shy away from baseball’s uglier sides too. There are pieces on steroid use, such as Denial, which shows a “see no evil” monkey trio, a Congressional hearing, an a hypodermic needle. Gamblin’ Rose has images of Pete Rose as a player and a main one of then-Commissioner of Baseball Bart Giametti ejecting him.
Sakoguchi was born in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1938. During World War II, his family was in a Japanese American internment camp in Arizona. The Skirball art exhibit may focus on his unusual look at baseball history, but his art does depict other topics and is not always in the orange crate format. His paintings have been displayed in a variety of U.S. museums. His baseball ones have also been featured in Sports Illustrated.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Exhibition preview April 6, 2016
Skirball Cultural Center: The Unauthorized History of Baseball in 100-Odd Paintings
Daily News: Baseball history and art the subject of Skirball’s new exhibitions
Grouping photo of Ben Sakoguchi works by Dyanne Weiss
Hair Ball Brand painting, 2008 by Ben Sakoguchi, courtesy the artist and Skirball Cultural Center