Like a Rainbow
THE Art of Rob Sato
Rob Sato’s watercolor paintings have changed suddenly. While past works once detailed hair follicles, grotesque beings, or wrinkles on giant mammals, his new pieces have shifted into forms with subtle narratives and social commentary. Instead of dazzling you with details, Sato has turned to emotion via vibrant color. In his recent exhibition, Arco Iris, Sato illustrates a world that’s not only about how we view rainbows, but how ideas are captured in mythology.
By Eric Nakamura
Photos by Kevin Vu Kim
GR: Why Arco Iris? Your art has made an interesting turn.
Rob Sato: "Arco Iris" is the Spanish word for rainbow. I was going to name the show “Rainbow,” but Ako [Rob’s wife] mentioned the Spanish word.
Rainbow is a weak word to me, but Arco Iris is interesting and strong; it has blood and guts in it. The etymology of Arco Iris comes from the Greek goddess Iris, who is a messenger goddess. She’d run down rainbows to communicate with humans for anything that happened between the gods and Earth. Whenever a rainbow would appear, it meant the gods were talking.
GR: When was that?
RS: Ancient Greece! It’s wrapped up in mythology. In many cultures, rainbows don’t necessarily mean good vibes and unity. It means shit is about to go down; changes are happening. In the Judeo-Christian myth, the rainbow symbolizes God making a promise to never destroy the Earth again. You have communication with God which means future stability. But for most cultures it means radical, unpredictable change is about to happen.
GR: So in America rainbows are Kermit the Frog, but in some cultures rainbows aren’t benign.
RS: The Rainbow Connection [from The Muppet Movie]. I like that friction.
GR: How do you know this?
RS: Wikipedia and just reading! It’s something I’ve known about in Norse mythology, but I didn’t know it was also in Greek mythology, until Ako mentioned it.
GR: What about in Mexico?
RS: I’m not a native Spanish speaker, so I don’t know what the associations are. But I do like how the word tells a story. And I like how its Latin roots make up part of the anatomy of our eyes, so the word is also about seeing.
GR: What are the donuts about in this show?
RS: They look like donuts. They’re irises.
GR: I thought they were rainbows as a full circle?
RS: That too! They’re really just color tests. If what you see is donuts, they’re clearly donuts. They’re donut irises.
GR: I thought you were making a departure away from research. You used to research so you could paint things to a realistic standard.
RS: That’s more in the past. That was about learning how to draw, how to look and make things. I wouldn’t call what I do research anymore. I could research things to death, but that would kill the enjoyment of making the work. Now it’s about absorbing things. It’s about picking things out of the atmosphere and letting it move onto a page.
GR: Didn’t the past research lead up to what you’re doing now? Is all that research now flushed away?
RS: At a certain point I thought it was important to at least know what was accurate so you could break it. I don’t like things to totally make sense. It bothers me; it’s not as fun. But I like a foundation of knowledge so I can distort it. I’d much rather draw something out of my head and see what comes out. That’s more of an interesting drawing than using a piece of reference material to draw from.
GR: Do you look back and see it was a pain that you did so much research?
RS: Some of it was valuable and some of it was a pain in the ass. I see artwork that others are doing and I think, stop what you’re doing, it’s not worth it.
GR: I remember seeing boards of photocopies and accuracy tests.
RS: I was trying to force information into my head. Maybe for a little while, for a couple months, it was fun. But it becomes oppressive. I lost what was enjoyable in making art for a little while there.
GR: What was enjoyable?
RS: It changes all the time. It’s about finding something that communicates in a nonverbal way. I’m excited nowadays about seeing how things are put together. You’re not hiding your brush strokes. It’s dull to have something that looks exactly how it’s supposed to look.
GR: This piece (points to Everything is Happening All at Once All the Time for Every Reason) is the show stopper. This one has your new work, but you do have this echo of your older work at the bottom.
RS: That old Rob shit.
GR: It’s in the style of Hieronymus Bosch.
GR: How about Bosch-y?
RS: Yeah, Bosch-y.
GR: It’s now the foreground of your work.
RS: I still want to do this kind of stuff. It anchors what I’m talking about: rainbows not being just a good vibe. They're the whole spectrum of humanity. But I think it’s about learning where to place that kind of energy. Before, I filled every single space with as much crackling detail as I could. It was fun. It was the energy and arrogance of youth, which is important to indulge yourself in. Look what I can do. I’m such a very patient man who can make all this detail. After a while it becomes too much; even looking at the paintings still lying around in my house I have to hide them. It’s too much information. I don’t think it’s enjoyable to look at them anymore.
GR: Is that age talking, maturity, or changing taste?
RS: All of the above. You know, we’re all transforming and changing all the time.
GR: I think you’re moving towards this trajectory to a Rothko-esque direction. It’s fields of color instead of fields of detail.
RS: I used to joke that I would eventually become a Zen monk painter— a single stroke. But I think it’s probably going there.
GR: You have a piece that’s primarily yellow, with a little purple and just one figure. It’s the most minimal big piece I’ve seen you do.
RS: I’m getting into large poetic spaces.
GR: Is that surprising to yourself, or just right? The one piece is edgy compared to the rest of the show. It’s one of the most appealing, but it’s also showing what direction you can go in, which is remarkably different than everything else in the show.
RS: Thanks. It’s not surprising to me. I have always made that kind of stuff. But it’s sort of having the confidence to put something up with very minimal details in it. When you put super detailed stuff up, people get really into it. You put up something like that (motioning to “In To Out” painting) and you get far fewer pats on the back. I was susceptible to that kind of energy. But I think this direction is good.
GR: Is that the direction? Is that (“In To Out”) the last piece or was it an early piece?
RS: It almost didn’t make it into the show. At first I thought it didn’t fit with the rest of the work. But Ako and I go over stuff all the time together, and she disagreed. Other stuff didn’t make it. Most stuff that was edited out had a higher level of detail.
GR: I want to see it so I can give you a pat on the back! In the glass case are pieces with color wash and no detail. You made them for sale and people bought some. To me that’s more Rothko-esque, more bold. Would you have done this a few years ago?
RS: Maybe a few years ago but not five years ago.
GR: Tell me about the drawings, have they evolved?
RS: Everything is evolving. My drawings are getting looser. I’m trying to communicate more directly. Or what I think is directly. Again, sort of less information-based and more emotional-based, if that makes sense.
GR: It 100% makes sense. Your work has less detail, less researched flair, but more emotional flair. Maybe less painstaking?
RS: It’s painstaking in the sense that it’s still watercolor and difficult to deal with. It’s more planning ahead than before, at least in the application of paint. It’s still a very technical process.
GR: Do you see watercolor painters out there or not? Because I don't.
RS: Yeah, not really because of its difficulty. Maybe it’s not taken seriously. You see it in used in sketchbooks, mostly because of it’s immediacy. It doesn’t take as much clean up. It’s easier to deal with before and after. With oil and acrylic, there’s maybe a grittier history. Tough guy stuff.
GR: What do you have to say about the artists who are scared of watercolor? Are they pussies?
RS: Absolutely. Total wimps.
GR: Tell me about that comic book project on Japanese Americans you did? Those were drawings, and you watercolored them too.
RS: That was a bad idea. It was a comic book company called Stela, and its comics are only for smart phone and tablets. They got this single scrolling comic experience.
GR: This was a WWII comic, so was it less emotion and more research?
RS: Definitely, and I got a lot of it wrong. That’s painful. I think the biggest nerds in the world are military history nerds. They’re the most angry and shitty. They would say stuff like, “This Russian tank wasn’t in service in 1943; you have to go months earlier.” Well, I haven’t gotten any of that yet. I guess I’m pointing it out so people will do that to me.
GR: Did you do enough research where you felt comfortable battling against military nerds?
RS: I feel uncomfortable with that kind of stuff. It’s just gear. In the end, I think, who cares! Now they’ll really come after me. The uniforms are wrong. Guns are wrong. The one that kills me is that I looked for a solid month for this one campaign in France on which vehicles to use, and I just found this book recently: it has everything. Everything is described in detail. The scene we depicted was wrong. What everyone was doing was wrong. They did a supply drop and the planes I drew were wrong. Well, I did enough research to know the planes were in service in France at the time so maybe it was those planes. But I don’t know if I should worry over it so much. The story got told.
GR: Did the story dictate the style?
RS: The story sort of dictated the style. I’m not totally satisfied with the comic, at least my end of it. I hadn’t done comics in a long time. Drawing people and characters’ faces wasn’t something that I was in the practice of doing. Everything was a little too complicated. And doing watercolor comics is a terrible idea. It takes so long, especially when you’re under a deadline. I did research up to a point, until I just had to get it done, and would draw my best guess of what happened.
GR: This was a year of your life? You’re half Japanese American, did this change anything about how you look at this part of your history?
RS: It’s been part of my life since before I was born. My grandfather was in the 442nd, the segregated JA regiment.
GR: I didn’t know that. You’re a fitting guy to do the comic even if it was all wrong.
RS: I even showed him the comic and he said “Eh.” I think he was like, “Alright, looks like Nisei soldiers.”
GR: You've been to the Manzanar, one of the concentration camps that held Japanese Americans. Do you go every year? I wasn’t sure if it was related to the comic.
RS: I try to do stuff for our people.
GR: It put you in a place to recognize that you do this shit?
RS: It was the anniversary of 9066, the executive order signed by Roosevelt that created American concentration camps. It was cool that the place still exists. Over the years, people made it a national monument.
GR: Are you doing more comics?
RS: I want to do more.
GR: But isn't that what makes zero money and takes the most time?
RS: It’s entirely a labor of love. I was talking to another comic book artist this morning about how there’s a mad purity to making comics. Of course, I don’t think that’s how it should be, especially with indie comics. The worst comics are the ones that make money.
GR: What’s your ideal project for comics?
RS: Just something I write, draw and have creative control over.
GR: What would that be? Is it nonfiction or fiction?
RS: I think it’ll be fiction. I want to do stories. Spin a silly yarn.
GR: So, unlike the Japanese American story. Would it coincide with the world in your artwork?
RS: I’m still testing out what I want my comics to look like; it’s been so long since I’ve made any directly for me. After my experience doing the Stela comic, I’m not sure it’ll be watercolor, so that’s a big difference in what it would look like and how I would make the characters. Something new needs to be figured out.
GR: Is your art going in the trajectory you expected?
RS: No, not at all. I didn’t really have a plan. It’s taken me a long time to figure out how to make art. I’m still figuring it out. It’s not going to change, but you’re into certain things at a certain time. There are artists who I like for a couple months, when I can’t wait to see their works in-person, figure out where their shows are, and get their books. Then one day you open the book and nothing is radiating off the image anymore. I think the same thing happens with yourself. I spend a lot of time with myself and a lot of time alone. Because I’m an artist, I sit at a desk for 16 hours, or a in front of a wall with a blank page to see what’s inside of me. I go where the curiosity is. Sometimes that means there’s a lot of paintings in the trash.