Rob Sato's memories of a high school baseball game in 1992 are hazy. The team traveled by bus to Yuba County in Northern California. Sato may have been playing right field at the time, or maybe he was just running sprints in the outfield when the chaos arose. What he does remember is the sound of a sheriff screaming through a megaphone, telling the crowd to "hit the deck." The parents in the stands dropped. The kids on the field dropped. Sato wasn't sure what was going on. The wind made it difficult to hear anything. "I don't know how long we were out there," he says, standing in a Los Angeles art gallery two decades later. "It felt like a really long time." After a while, they got on the bus and headed back home.
When Sato was a baseball-playing teenager in Northern California, he drew. "It was just something I did when I was sitting on the bench," he says. "I would deface everything that could be defaced in the dugout." Sato's teammates would hand him their hats and gloves for a few doodles. Few balls escaped his pens. Years later, after he had relocated to Los Angeles, he came across some unmarked baseballs at his parents' house. Sato brought them to his studio and left them clean for a little bit before he returned to his high school ways. He drew bits of teenage flashbacks on the balls and The Lindhurst High School shooting is now part of a collection of memories sitting inside Martha Otero Gallery. "I hadn't thought about it in a long time," says Sato. He looked up the tragedy online after he finished the drawings and found out that it was the basis of a TV movie starring Rick Schroeder.
On another side of the ball, there is a depiction of an incident from his freshman year of high school, in suburban Sacramento, when Sato was beaten up in a park near some woods. He sketched out his friends. He drew the guy who beat him. The tiny visual cues tell a story in fragments, much in the same way that one would struggle to recall events that took place 20 years earlier.
One of Sato's early ambitions was to make maps "I really liked making maps as an idea," he says, before sighing, "but when you actually do it, it's such a pain." In his own way, though, Sato is engaging in map-making with his recent solo show, "Curses." "This is as close as I'm getting," he says, "memory maps."
Sato's work is filled with stories. Sometimes, they are based on history or literature. There is "Seance II: Jericho Rising" (2014), where the Battle of Jericho unfolds on a spiraling piece of paper. "That was one of the stories that was always so captivating to me because it's so nuts," he says. Sato gives the summary, surmising that, along with Sodom and Gomorrah, it's one of the Bibles' "craziest stories of mass murder." Sato's own take on, he says is, "kind of the spirit of joyful profanity."
Other times, the narrative reflects the process of making art. "The Battle of Book 52" is a Moleskin sketchbook with accordion-fold pages. He worked in it with pencil and ink, cutting the small illustrations into pop-up figures. "This is the struggle to get through a book," says Sato, whose collection of filled sketchbooks often included as part of his overall body of work.
In a way, it all goes back to memory, whether its the recollection of a Bible story learned as a child or a documentation of the artist's process. At the center of "Curses" is "Five Movements for Little Guys," a series of five watercolors on scrolls that are four-feet wide and ten-feet tall. In these works, Sato sets out to paint every person he can recall.
"Five Movements for Little Guys" first appeared at "SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot," a exhibition featuring works affiliated with the L.A.-based gallery (and former magazine) at Oakland Museum of California. The curators asked Sato what he wanted to do for the show. His response: "Give me 25 feet of wall and I'll fill it with something."
Initially, Sato intended to paint one wall piece that depicted everyone he remembered walking. Eventually, he broke it up into five parts. Sato isn't sure of the exact number of people in his paintings. He guesses that it's somewhere around 1,000 bodies.
As Sato continued painting, he noticed something interesting. People he knew in real life were getting mixed up with characters he recognized from pop culture. "There would be an amalgamation," he says, "things like people who remind me of characters from fiction, books, TV." Sometimes, two people would morph into one person in the painting.
"I mask out the figures," he explains, "so they're just a shape, maybe. Then I do these big washes over the top of it. Sometimes, it would just be the shape that reminds me of my wife or some kid in third grade who broke his arm."
Sato intentionally worked without referencing photos. Even with the TV and film characters, he went by the image in his head. "I wanted to try to remember them how my mind remembers them," he says. "Sometimes, I would look them up later and see how inaccurate or accurate they were."
The results vary. He says that some of his images didn't quite match the person. With others, he adds, the interpretations came quite close to people he hadn't seen in decades. As we talk more about the quirks of memory, he mentions "Rashomon", the Akira Kurasawa film where characters do not remember the same events the same way. Sato is working solo on his show, but he's still playing with the ideas of the accuracy of memory. It is, says Sato, a "super fun" exercise.