Despite the rigors of preparing for his upcoming solo exhibition at Copro Gallery, which opens on Saturday, August 7th, Rob was extremely generous with his time and gave me an interview of great depth and candor.
Erratic Phenomena: You grew up in Modesto, the nexus of a farming community in California's San Joaquin Valley — just hours from two of the most vibrant countercultures in the country, but nonetheless isolated by your conservative milieu. Tell me a bit about your childhood. Did you prefer having your nose in a book, or were you of a more exploratory nature? Were there any artists in your family? Was there someone in particular who encouraged your creative bent?
Rob Sato: Most of my childhood was actually spent in and around Sacramento, and we moved to Modesto while I was in high school. My childhood seems to me to have been average and atypically serene. There were some horrors, but nothing particularly traumatic. Almost all my family — and it's a large one — lives in Sacramento, and I enjoyed seeing them all regularly. School was a breeze — I got along reasonably well with teachers and classmates, hung out with neighborhood kids, had some close friends, the closest of which were my sister and my cousins, and generally enjoyed being alive.
There was also plenty of solitary time. I've spent years' worth of time locked away in my room talking to myself, going out of my mind drawing, reading, and narrating the lives of inanimate objects. This more or less continues today. Patches of open country were often only a five-minute bike ride out of the then-limited suburbs, so I did plenty of solo trekking, throwing myself around in drainage ditches, fields and acres of uncompleted housing developments. My creativity was encouraged in the most general sense by my mom, who stressed from an early age that it was important to learn to entertain myself, that there are many weapons against boredom. Books, mainly. In the summers, we went to the library at least once a week, and our last house in Sacramento was very close to a branch which I visited virtually every day.
Nobody in any previous generation of my family was a professional artist, but painting and drawing never seemed like that strange a thing to do. A few eyebrows were raised when I decided to go to art school, but on the whole it was encouraged or nobody cared. My grandmother and great-grandmother did landscape painting, and their paintings decorated our house and the houses of relatives. When I was small, my dad and I would sit around and draw for fun on weekend mornings, copying cartoons from the Sunday paper and doodling. He taught me to draw cars, a lesson I put to very heavy use. In elementary school, I think nearly the whole class was obsessed with drawing. I may be seeing this all through the distorted lens of my own enthusiasms, but I don't think so. I remember the kids themselves organizing drawing contests, a craze which peaked during fifth grade. We actually assigned ourselves homework without even realizing it. The drawings would be done at night and they would be judged and discussed before class started the next day or at recess. I wonder how unusual that is. Now I wonder if it was me bullying everyone into these things. Hopefully not.
In all those years, the people who liked to draw just kind of gravitated towards each other. It tended to be the kids who were really taken with stories and pictures, fixated, like me, on fantasy illustrations and movies. Even in high school, a period where most of the people I hung out with were not into drawing at all, or were kind of ashamed of their previous preoccupations, there was a solid group around whom I could talk about these interests. There was art class, where there were a few genuine enthusiasts. There was only one other guy I met in high school who was into alternative comics, and though we weren't super close, it was something we looked forward to discussing. He hipped me to the fact that I didn't have to settle for what was on the shelves at bookstores and the library, that I could order weird and wonderful things from catalogs.
EP: Your work is notable for its historical acumen and a dystopian quality that speaks of an immersion in science fiction and perhaps a certain sanguinary variety of adventure fiction. Can you think of any books you read when you a child that might have had a formative influence on your vision?
RS: I read everything. This was not necessarily a good thing. I read regardless of my interest in the subject or if I could even understand what was written. I just ate words, not even bothering to understand the ones beyond my knowledge. I read my sister's Baby-sitters Club books because they were around the house and you can finish one of those things in a minute and a half. Once I was so bored at a relative's house that I read the autobiography of Lee Iacocca while I had to hang out there all day without any kids around. I remember thinking, "Why would anyone read this?" while I read it. I read the entire Anne of Green Gables series and gave a book report on them. I was actually mocked for reading them during my report. I sensed a certain smirking tension while I rambled on, and finally a girl raised her hand and said, "You know those are girls' books, right?" and the whole class exploded in laughter. My teacher did not come to my defense, and I think even she looked at me for a while with traces of homophobia in her eyes. Runaway Ralph was a very early favorite, the Chronicles of Narnia were big, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler was probably top of the list, the book I wanted to live in for a while.
The only non-Bible related books that have consistently been in my parents' house since I was a kid are the complete Yale Shakespeare Library set, and I read many of them by the time I was in high school. I had it in my head for a period that I was forbidden to read these, so there was a secret joy in sneaking a volume to my room. Being so young, I didn't understand most of what was going on, and it only very slowly dawned on me that there were these things called plays and that these were the words for actors. While the language was like nothing I had ever read, there was this feeling that it was connected to aspects of life that I could sometimes see out of the corner of my eye. My mom was getting her credential to teach high school English, so there were all the standard Important Books to Learn From lying around. I snuck off with stuff like Jane Eyre, Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders — all the while thinking that I was getting away with something. My mom actually caught me hiding behind my bed reading The Outsiders, and it all came out that she didn't care and was, on the contrary, pretty happy about it. The second half of that book may be somewhat less exciting to me just because of that.
I did dive into science fiction, fantasy, and adventure with total abandon. It's all a blur. I read the usual stuff, from Tolkien to Ray Bradbury. After seeing the movie Ivanhoe, I read the great Sir Walter Scott book and then stuffed myself with Arthurian material for a summer, resulting in my becoming another irritating fat dork who quotes nonstop from Monty Python. I went through a brief obsession with the American Civil War, reading history books very seriously for the first time, as well as a lot of historical fiction. That ended abruptly when I went down to the park in excitement to check out a re-enactment and came away feeling depressed. It was one of the silliest and most disgusting spectacles I have ever seen. This is an admittedly juvenile reason to ditch studying the Civil War, but I think that scene made me realize in some way that my preoccupation with it was coming from somewhere shameful and wrong. In a similar vein, I read a slew of terrible military thrillers as a teenager which are chock full of things that demand lampooning, something that's definitely been feeding aspects of my work.
Out of everything, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Robotech loom large. I constantly mine the experience of being taken away by those fantasies, focusing not even on the films or the books, but the ever-expanding world of it that lived in my head. It's amazing, as a kid you see so much that isn't really there in the original material. It's been a lot of fun to see the parallels in predecessors, such as post-war men's adventure pulps, and heroic fiction from The Odyssey to Batman. In the bookstore I worked in, I had this snotty urge to create a section called "Men's Romance," and put all the military, spy, techno-thriller, and adventure books there, not to mention some of the non-fiction books with titles like "I Was an Army Special Forces Ranger," by the angry and rugged-looking Sgt. So-and-So. I know these avenues have been heavily trod upon, but it's difficult to turn my attention away from the combination of righteousness, violence, bloodthirstiness, and occasionally, some admirably noble and humane intentions. Recognizing it in not only my own imagination, but that of the masses, has been fascinating me. It seems so awful and laughable, squalid and lofty, I'm compelled to make fun of it without denying the weird power of it. I've only recently gotten into Don Quixote, and it seems like Cervantes pretty much covered the bases, but I'll probably still carry on with these themes for a while.
"Land Admiral Lefebvre's Fleet Makes Sail In the New World" (detail)
There are two books that spring immediately to mind which affected me more heavily than any other, though I'm not sure to what degree they influence my work. The first book, The Bible, is a major part of my life because I absolutely had to read it, memorize it, and live with it as a completely foregone conclusion. I am not a Christian, but that's the way I was raised, and The Bible was pounded into my consciousness with such regularity and persistence that its imprint will never leave. I've probably read it more than any other book. On the positive side, I was given a good theological education, taught to break down literature and interpret parables, to dig meaning from vague text and symbolic poetry, and to grapple with moral quandaries before I ever had to truly confront them. Also, it helped a lot with English papers. It makes you aware of a lot of references in Western literature. On the downside, it's a book I didn't enjoy reading which I nevertheless read almost every day for most of my first 17 years, during several of which the attempt to take it at its literal word caused considerable mental anguish. In the same way John Waters says that he's grateful to religion because it has made sex always dirty, I can say that I'm grateful to The Bible for making the reading of Shakespeare, or almost any other book for that matter, feel like explosively pleasurable pornography. That's an exaggeration.
The second big book was much shorter and a lot funnier. When I was twelve, I checked out Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions from the library entirely by chance, and it completely electrified me. It was as if light burst into a dark room. I could not believe such a thing existed. I finished it in one afternoon and went back to the library the next day and checked out everything else by him that they had. Since I read everything published by him at the time in about two weeks, it's more like Kurt Vonnegut's work in general was pivotal. Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. They came right after one another, and made things seem infinitely better. I've liked other books by other authors more since then, but Breakfast of Champions opened a door which shut behind me and disappeared as soon as I walked through it.
"Between a Flying Elephant and a Dead Bird"
EP: One of the first demented comics you managed to get your hands on was by Jim Woodring, whose surreal characters and scenarios are inspired by his lifelong hallucinations. Although your technical aesthetics couldn't be more different, I can see some common fixations — grotesque transformations and the cruel arbitrariness of life, for example. What was it about finding that comic that made you think drawing comics might be something you could do with your life?
RS: Frank came along and proved by its very existence that there was a space in the world for it. It was exciting. I found out that Jim Woodring was out there making this thing, and it came as a relief. Here was engaging, well-drawn, super strange and very readable work. It was made by one person and not a team. It contained all kinds of moods all at once. It was funny, horrific, hallucinatory, sweet, zany, and sad. Its universe was both incredibly solid and incredibly flexible. It felt like the inside of a head, but it wasn't a manic or disorganized place to be. It didn't seem like it was limited to any cultural scene, it seemed somehow both universal and really personal work, familiar but unlike anything I had ever seen. It felt genre-less.
The only comics I had made at that point were similarly without dialogue, mostly because I was just making these little cause-and-effect sequences, and seeing a whole book published without dialogue was heartening. It seemed to me that Frank was created with no rules, even though I've read some interviews with Jim Woodring now where he reveals that this isn't necessarily true. I had become dimly aware that I was basically done with superhero comics, and the idea of working on them made me feel claustrophobic. I liked Caliber, Dark Horse and Vertigo titles just fine, mainly because they were not about superheroes. Writing and drawing that kind of fantasy didn't really appeal to me. I had seen Crumb comics by that point, as well. I loved the way they looked, but they weren't story-oriented enough to keep my attention, and the subject matter was either bewildering or made me shrug and say, "So what?" My own ideas for stories didn't seem to fit anywhere. I think Frank reminded me that you're free to make anything without worrying if there's a place for it.
EP: You're part Japanese. From other Asian artists who grew up in the Central Valley, I've learned that there is a certain amount of racism lingering in the area. Did racial tensions make much of an impact on your childhood, and on your evolution as an artist? Do you think your athleticism – and mean fastball – immunized you to some of the crueler aspects of growing up "different" in an insular community?
RS: First off, let me put rumors about my "mean fastball" to rest. It's mortifying to think anyone who knew me then will read that and think I've been glorifying myself. The truth is that I was a halfway decent high school relief pitcher who couldn't hit at all and spent most of my time on the bench. Now that that's aside, on to more serious matters. Dreary old racial matters. I have no idea if my athletic ability helped to shield me from the socially fraught atmosphere of high school, which means that it probably did. The hate and anger is thick during adolescence anyway, so it's difficult to gauge. I took a few beatings during junior high and high school, but I don't think those were racial so much as stupid gangster nonsense. The basic answer is no, racial tensions did not make much of an impact on my childhood, and if it has affected my art, it's been to solidify my view from early on that life is patently absurd. I've never felt different or alienated in any way other than being mocked earlier on for being fat and a nerd. I've always had the very stabilizing feeling that there's a load of seriously fucked-up bigoted idiots out there, and I don't have to take what they think of me personally.
Racism was definitely around, but very rarely was it ever directed at me. Some friends had to put up with it a lot more, which caused the rolling of eyes more than anything else. I'm half Japanese and while it shows, my features are predominantly white, so that probably has something to do with my low incident rate. In fact, every single racial situation where I've been directly involved has had more to do with me looking white than it has with my being half Asian. I've caught some weird shit from people for looking white more than a few times. During some of these incidents, it comes out that I'm half Japanese, and there's a disconcerting relaxation in the atmosphere, or the offending person will apologize and say, "Why didn't you tell me you weren't white?" That is some horribly sad and uncomfortable garbage. One person even said to me, "I thought you were just this American guy!" and I replied, "Well, yeah, I am," and they said, "No you're not, don't say that." Then there's the opposite side of this same coin where some white guy (it's always a guy) will try to commiserate with me about how lousy dark people make life worse for us decent people. That experience for me has not been unique to the Central Valley. Customers come into the bookstore in Glendale and just strike up these kinds of conversations out of nowhere. I'll allow that in the Central Valley there did seem to be a lot more white folks completely comfortable with their prejudice, and they were just normal, middle-class people, not nutjob bookstore lurkers. Even a few of the kids my age, all of them with dads who were good old boys, would use the words "nigger" and "wetback" without blinking an eye, and they would get confused when people got upset.
Here's a funny story. When I got my first paycheck from my paper route for the astounding sum of $110, I was so excited I wanted to do something really adult with it. Buying comics was in order, but that seemed too humdrum and unceremonious. My dad was usually the person who gave me haircuts, but I'd had my eye on this classic-looking barbershop for a while. It seemed so old world and manly to get a four-dollar haircut (the price was advertised in the window), so I got dressed up and rode my bike over there. It was everything I wanted it to be, including the group of grizzled old men hanging out and smoking. The barber was animated and funny, practically a cartoon of himself. He was super-nice to me, and I liked that he didn't tone down his cursing just because a kid was there. Unfortunately, halfway into my haircut the conversation turned to "Japs." They were pissed about all the cars and electronics and how the Japanese were going to take over America economically, but mostly they were pissed that when they fought in the war they didn't wipe every one of those "slanty-eyed fuckers" off the face of the planet. Being pretty wide-eyed, I piped up and said, "Hey, you know, I'm half Japanese." They were all instantly quiet and visibly ashamed. The barber finally said, "I'm sorry, kid. Don't listen to us, we're just stupid old men."
EP: Your early work focused on a colorful menagerie of hairy, pustulent, fecund creatures devouring and copulating with each other. You've characterized them more succinctly as "real." Why do you think you found these grotesque subjects so compelling?
RS: In some ways they were reactions — even overreactions — to the craze of cuteness and the smooth, glossy blankness that was continuing to saturate not only visual media, but life itself. Even in the world of indie comics, there seemed to be a heavy atmosphere of twee, fussy cleanliness that kind of depressed me. I wanted to obliterate it from my vision. It was my way of cleaning — or clawing — my eyes out. I wanted to peel the poreless, hairless skins off of the cute and characterless, I wanted to give specificity to blankness. I think it was an exaggeration on my part to call those creations "real," my point really being that I wanted them feel like they had to breathe, eat, sweat, shit, stink, go through puberty and get old. It has always made me really uncomfortable when imaginary characters have had these aspects of life removed from the equation. I don't have to see them doing any of those things, but I prefer that they feel like they could.
One of the really great things about cartoons is the tension between drawn characters and real-world observations. How far can you stretch it before it snaps? For me, what makes the beautiful clean lines of Jaime Hernandez, Charles Burns and Dan Clowes really sing is the observation in their writing and a certain lack of a pose in the way they present their work. Nothing about the structure of their characters — as drawings or as fictional personas — are in any way clean. They have the mess of reality built into them. Beautiful drawing alone cannot carry a story. There are brains behind this work, and not a perverse desire to continuously manufacture good-looking people in a good-looking world doing good-looking things. An extension of this same sickness is the desire to watch people, especially good-looking ones, doing ugly things. This seems to be in the service of exposing flaws to pump up a personal feeling of superiority, or it grossly fetishizes frailty.
EP: While you attended California College of the Arts, you lived above a restaurant in Oakland with David Choe and Joe To (and an assortment of other people), with whom you explored a life of petty crime, creative competition and intellectual anarchy. Since then, the three of you have remained close friends, evidencing the greatest respect and love for each other. Tell me what it was like living in Art's Crab Shack, and what the three of you have learned from each other over the years.
Rob, Joe To and David Choe back in the day (via Metropolis Gallery)
RS: Living at the Crab Shack was fun, filthy, and exhausting. There was continuous drawing, eating, stealing, running, laughing, and no sleep. Friendships flared up and burned out, but most of them continue today. Dave and Joe are like family. I don't see them often, but it's always a warm reunion. Both of them have helped out a lot, and their raw ability has always been a thing to marvel at and respect. It makes you want to continuously get better. Both of them have actually sat down with me and walked me through certain techniques, something they've never needed from me. In fact, I don't think they've ever learned anything from me.
EP: Tell me about your creative partnership with fellow artist and California College of the Arts alum Ako Castuera. Does the proximity and intimacy of living with another artist produce a symbiotic effect? How do you think your relationship has influenced your development?
RS: It's definitely symbiotic, in that we've lived together for almost twelve years now in a state of harmonious and growing entanglement. We really enjoy each other's company. We tend not to collaborate on that many projects, because we work in very different ways, and apparently I can be a minor tyrant, but we constantly discuss our work and offer each other plenty of tips and criticism. Ako never touches my paintings, but there's plenty of her in them. Her brain continuously and effortlessly thinks of the things I would never come up with. She's also a natural craftsman with big brains in her fingers, something I'm never going to have. I've never met someone who was so good at so many ways to make things with your hands. Drawing, painting, sculpting, carving, knitting, it goes on and on — all of them done creatively. Her ability to adapt to any of these activities is amazing. I think it pushes me to pay attention to craft and materials a little more than if I had never met her. Her brain is a big storehouse for unique uses of a wide variety of materials, and her insight is always pointed, sharp, and correct. Everything each one of us does is so much a part of each other's lives that I can't really say that our relationship influenced my development — it is the development.
EP: When you were a boy, you wanted to grow up to write and illustrate your own stories. In 2004, you submitted a draft of your comic Burying Sandwiches to the Xeric Foundation, and won their prestigious self-publishing grant. The following year, after a great deal of effort, Burying Sandwiches was published. Tell me about that experience.
RS: I had known about the Xeric Grant simply from being a comic fan, and Dave had received one to publish Slow Jams. He kept telling me to go out and get one myself, but I couldn't put it together. Ako and I moved from Oakland to L.A. in 2001, and by coincidence, we met Ariel Martian and her husband, Songgu Kwon, and became close friends. They lived in the same apartment building as us and Songgu had just won a Xeric Grant to publish his great comic, Blanche the Baby Killer. Both of them started in saying, "What the fuck is wrong with you, get something going and win a Xeric." So I did.
We were unemployed and swiftly going very, very broke after our move, and we just could not get work. To fill in the hours, I started making Burying Sandwiches. I was reading a lot of folk tales at that point, enjoying stuff like Lafcadio Hearn's translations of Japanese stories and Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales, and I came up with a simple idea. I had created this one image of a girl cooking ghosts and it occurred to me that I could combine that with an idea I had wanted to include in a story, but hadn't yet found the right spot. My sister could never finish the bagged lunches my mom made for her, and because she felt too guilty to throw them out, she would stuff them away in her closet. Eventually you could smell the decay radiating from her room, and my mom finally found them, a mountain of old sandwiches in bags. So I put that together with the idea of eating ghosts, figured the theme would be centered loosely around consumption, and decided that the whole thing would work really well if told in the style of a folk tale taking place in a 20th century American suburb. That was basically it.
I went through a half dozen scripts, started drawing, tossed out the script, and just kept drawing. Once things seemed solid, the skeleton standing up nice and straight, my good friend, writer and editor, Elle Vevea, went through the story with me and helped trim the fat and punch the story up. I lined up a printer, chose paper, applied for distribution with Diamond, and mailed the thing to the Xeric Foundation. After I got the grant, the rest was a big rush to get it printed before that year's Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco. It dropped to almost total silence. I hadn't advertised it at all, and I had no idea how or where to do that anyway. I sent review copies here and there, and got good response, but I could have done better. The book has enjoyed mild success since then, though — copies continue to trickle out and the stock is almost gone. Not bad. Story-wise, there's the odd detail that makes me wince, but it was a product of its time. The most painful part of making it was the editing, cleanup and layout, which took about nine months at Ariel and Gu's house. We didn't have a computer and I had a day job, major factors in slowing me down. I'll never be able to thank those people enough for helping me with Photoshop and Quark, and for their bottomless generosity with their time, food, cigarettes, and liquor.
EP: Burying Sandwiches is a horrible yet absurd tale about a girl who cannot bear the thought of eating – the sheer grotesqueness of swallowing and defecating, compounded over a lifetime of meals, is utterly repugnant to her, and she eventually chooses to stop eating altogether. What were the seeds of that idea? Have you ever been overcome by a similar sensation?
RS: Absolutely. I've actually never found the act of eating and shitting as grotesque as Janice does, but I know there are many people out there who do feel that extreme about it. I have had similar feelings about the sheer volume and frequency with which one has to eat to keep going. It can really be an aggravating part of my daily grind. I know I'm not alone in feeling occasional animosity to eating, bathing, sleeping and other necessary things in life that can be a sensational pleasure or pure drudgery, no matter how delicious the food is, how hot the water is, or how soft the pillows are. I can be enjoying a great working streak and then hunger will strike and as hard as I might try, it cannot be ignored. That's frustrating as all hell.
As for the tyranny of bodily functions in Burying Sandwiches, the seed of that idea came from extending it as metaphor to the wide world of consumption. How much does it take to keep everyone going? The walls of technology, products, information, ideas, fads, style, language, gear, and activities that now surround us are closing in and grow higher and higher, and there's a song ringing out ceaselessly and the lyrics tell everyone to keep taking it in or risk failure and falling behind. Contentment is stagnation, only growth matters. Open wide or die. Of course, the song is almost entirely untrue. What is disturbing is that there is a tiny nugget of truth to it, and there are so many out there who will take advantage of that.
Animal Husbandry (cover)
EP: Your 3x3-inch micro-comic Animal Husbandry concerns a man who falls in love with a fish, which necessarily complicates his life in a number of ways. The story could be taken as a parable about interracial relationships, or about gay marriage. What inspired you to pursue that idea to its absurd conclusion?
RS: The basic theme is forbidden love, and at the time when I made Animal Husbandry, the gay marriage debate was heating up. Amongst the millions of idiotic comments being hurled about, there was one thing that kept cropping up that I just couldn't believe was part of the discussion. How many self-righteous morons called in to say, "If we accept this, then what's to say we can't stop the legalization of bestiality and marrying animals?" Of course, there's the completely sane argument that comparing someone who wants to copulate with creatures who will never have the slightest possibility of communicating at any real depth with a human being to two intelligent, consenting adults who want to kiss and hold hands during walks, wash dishes together, get bored in front of the TV together, hold each other at night while they sleep, and, oh yeah, also fuck each other for the rest of their lives, is mind-bendingly stupid and insulting. But sanity is dull and lost in these arguments, so here was my question: Is there an unseen horde of people sweating away in their little rooms with a great and secret throbbing desire? Can they hardly wait for the law to open the floodgates so that they can go out and bang all the neighborhood dogs? I decided to answer, "Yes, angry idiot on call-in show, of course there is," and made Animal Husbandry.
As far as the conclusion goes, I liked the idea of a character who achieves a real, meaningful love which was previously forbidden, and then squanders it disastrously. He's punished not for participating in what is forbidden, but for turning his back on the love. Plus, I drew that last panel early on, and it made me laugh. I had to find a way to get the story to end with that image.
EP: Although if pressed for a quick association, I might glibly characterize your aesthetic as the marriage of Ralph Steadman and Terry Gilliam, many people reviewing your paintings seem to be reminded of the Beatles film Yellow Submarine —perhaps because of its intoxicating palette. Would you say Heinz Edelmann's psychedelic designs for Pepperland or Gilliam's macabre animations for Monty Python were among your inspirations?
RS: I love the work of everyone you've mentioned. Pepperland scared me when I was young, which of course made me stare at it all the more. Edelmann's work is great, it's like ugly candy that causes the palette to itch. I've always loved the way Terry Gilliam's animation looked, but never thought those sequences were all that funny. They thud hard. Still, both the Python animations and Yellow Submarine have a strange, zany quiet to them that I've always liked. When the music isn't blaring over the soundtracks, they have no aural atmosphere despite the riot of color, at times the only sound being footsteps. That still gives me the enjoyable creeps.
EP: Over the years, you've moved away from the comic style of representing borders with clean ink lines, and allowed the paint alone to define form. Working exclusively with watercolor and acrylic inks, you manage to achieve something that feels simultaneously loose and very controlled. Tell me about the evolution of your aesthetic, and what inspired you to move in this direction.
RS: Very simply, I realized that the pictures looked better without the lines. My technique had developed to the point where I laid down color first, then broke out the ink brushes and pens. I noticed that those outlines often killed a dynamic quality in the paint, so I spent a few weeks trying to make my ink lines more dynamic. Then it dawned on me, I could just leave the paint the fuck alone.
EP: Many of your paintings seem to arise from moments of boredom, like standing in line or sitting in church. Since you spend most of those in-between moments of life sketching, perhaps your creative mind never really disengages. I was interested to learn that your paintings are often developed from a list of written notes, detailing various things you want to include in the composition. Tell me a bit more about your conceptual process.
RS: I really enjoy my process, but stepping back from it and looking at it reveals a man assigning himself homework, then meticulously, ploddingly, getting it done. I am not the explosive and dynamic action painter that David Choe is. It's true, I take a lot of notes, the work is getting so dense that I'm beginning to keep files on each project. I'm sometimes still able to just go at a piece with no planning whatsoever, but that's becoming rare. More and more specific things to need to happen in the pictures, so keeping track of things is required. Ideas spring out of every kind of activity, from mindlessly doodling to vacuuming under the bed. Once an idea seems worth pursuing, I'll start sketching, writing, and gathering research material in earnest. I write really terrible stream-of-consciousness poems. I use them to nail down the mood of a piece I'm trying to capture. They're very helpful and terrifically embarrassing, I hope no one ever reads them but me. Then I get lost in details and side stories for weeks, the end result of which is a picture which only vaguely resembles what I set out to make. The adjustments never end.
EP: Recently, you've begun to focus on larger paintings with incredibly detailed narratives unfolding within them. I've heard that these epic pieces can take you over a month to paint. How do you go about creating a painting like "Pastoral In a Future Passed"?
RS: I did the sketch for that one years ago as part of this war machine kick I've been on. The composition of the original sketch is exactly the same, but I knew I would have to get that image right, so I kept it in the back of my head, letting the world of it build. Gathering the research and mulling it over took much longer than executing the painting. Reading World War II history, particularly material on the horrible sad mess of the Pacific Theater, was the main research done for "Future Passed." After I found a photo of immediately post-war Japan, where Japanese war planes were gathered into a big pile and set on fire by American forces, I knew exactly where to go with the painting. That photo is such a powerful, bizarre image and it's layered with numerous different emotions. It's a beautiful day in the South Pacific and the war is over. The atmosphere exudes peace, laziness, surreal ordinariness. You almost expect to see a guy mowing the lawn or a family having a picnic, but instead the destruction continues. What makes it really strange is the humdrum nature of the destruction. The amazing machines of a tyrannical empire lie in ruins, piled in a heap like trash. The victors, who, no question, should have won, are ignorantly, pointlessly smashing things that could have been saved for posterity. It seems to say a lot about the two countries involved. A sunny melancholy rests over the whole image.
I wanted to capture this atmosphere, except in my painting, the machines would not be destroyed but in decay, and it was important that the materials be World War II era. The robot is chunkier, with the more bulky, rounded edges of planes from the forties, and not the streamlined sharpness of modern jets. It's made of steel and aluminum, and it clearly ran on gasoline. I want people to smell the burnt engine oil coming off of it. The image of the robot obviously references 1970s-'80s Japanese children's television, which was imported to the States and captured my generation's imagination. It stands impossibly huge, a monumental toy of empire and destruction, but looking ancient, almost prehistoric, like a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. It's meant to be simultaneously heavy and playful. It puts the violent, romantic fantasies of children right up against the real destruction and waste of war.
I read the words of almost any leader in history whose nationalism, patriotism, and militarism has lost its boundaries and launched into the stratosphere of irrational righteousness and romanticism, and see a child shamelessly playing hero, plain as day. It's scary in its almost dull obviousness. You want to throttle these people, along with anyone who follows or has followed them and scream, "Why can't you see what a mindless cliché you are?" For fun, I referenced the grownup-children-at-play aspect by having the robot missing the same arm as my favorite Transformer toy from childhood. "Future Passed" is not a longing for the innocence of playtime. It's always playtime, and it was never innocent.
Also, I wanted the surroundings to look more like California — putting this imaginary war in my backyard seemed intuitively appropriate. I had just read that the majority of Americans under 35 do not have a meaningful grasp of what WWII was about anymore, and that the Pacific was practically unheard of. Something like 90 percent of people cannot name a single battle in the war with Japan. It's nuts. This inspired me to hang death in tiny bits all over the robot, barely visible but still lingering. As the monument crumbles into obscurity, death parachutes out of it, like spores spreading out over the landscape.
EP: Your recent shows, "Dirty Paper Machines" and "Junk History," have focused on decaying machinery that melds with flesh and plant life in disturbing ways, a concept you've called "rotting nostalgia." In paintings like "Downstream Death Machines" and "Dirty Paper Machines," you explore a maelstrom of mangled meat-planes with gushing veins and trailing spinal columns. This work seems to be coming from an incredibly rich source of ideas. What was the genesis of this powerful concept? Do the Japanese Zeros and other World War II killing machines you've been painting lately have a personal significance for you?
RS: My answer to the previous question covers a large amount of this, but I'll try to illuminate other aspects. Admittedly, it's not a very organized concept. Part of what I'm getting at with "rotting nostalgia" comes from holding or looking at things from the past which at one point were mundane parts of everyday life and feeling a pang of loss. I think, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a time where things were made the way this Victrola player is?" Maybe it would or maybe it wouldn't, but the feeling rushes up on me before I think what I'm feeling is at least partially false. I never lived in a time when this was in everyday use. It is interesting, though, how our lives are still connected with the technology of the past. The sound of a record player turning is stored in the collective memory without most people consciously knowing what it is anymore. The crackle is a cliché, a noise often used to manipulate a feeling of the past in soundtracks. Also, we're finding out more and more that the activities of the past and their byproducts are physically everywhere in and around us, you can't escape it. As the objects disintegrate and float out of conscious memory, they are still physically and mentally entwined with our many systems.
Nostalgia can be rotten in numerous way, and it can be argued that it always is wrong since the word implies an idealization of the past. The feeling can initially be rotten in its foolishness. Then, once realizing that one is misrepresenting history, or at least not engaging with it honestly, the foolishness can be eroded away. If it can't be eroded, then one can at least be self-aware and learn to live with being a fool. When I'm looking at a F4U Corsair and admiring it, wishing to stand on the deck of an aircraft carrier and watch it in action, help take care of it, help it get up in the air, there's a childish ache to see it perform its task in its own time, to be around this machine when its purpose was necessary and dire. Its importance was tied up in an everyday function of human activity, which was to go out and kill people. To wish to be involved in such an ugly period in history, or to desire to be in war at all, is madness, but there's no denying the romantic pull of adventure. To not acknowledge that something about it stinks is irresponsible and silly.
"Dirty Paper Machines" came out of looking at hundreds of pictures of wrecks. I'm partial to the images where the wrecks have been allowed to rot, having become covered in vegetation, and I imagined just climbing inside, starting one up, and flying it away covered in barnacles and sea anemones. They keep finding dead pilots hanging from their parachutes in treetops, overgrown with vines, slowly becoming part of the jungles. There's a quiet, sad peace to these images, and they're incredibly good-looking. I was also reminded of Japanese movies where the ghosts of Imperial Army soldiers are still roaming around, such as in Kurosawa's Dreams and recently, Takashi Miike's Izo. I went to the Philippines a while back with my ex-girlfriend's family, and their relatives had some terrifying stories, not only of what they had to endure at the hands of the Japanese during the war, but an absolutely bone-chilling series of ghostly encounters afterwards. Once, long after the war ended, an elder was dragged out of his bed and pulled screaming down the street by the ghosts of Japanese soldiers. They were about to execute him when villagers came out to see what all the noise was about and they found him fighting a broom in the middle of the street. This was all floating around in my head when I thought of resurrecting the Zeros, a fleet of zombie planes in an endless suicide dive. I wanted to see if I could include everything at once in the image — the purpose of the planes, what they accomplished, what became of them, and the place they occupy in the world's memory.
EP: In some of your recent work, such as "Metal After Math," your main subjects — in this case, the shell of a warplane that crashed long ago — are in the process of becoming a sort of post-apocalyptic ecosystem, merging with nature and being consumed by a host of smaller creatures. It brought to mind something Miyazaki said about The Sea of Corruption in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind — "The things intended and the things that come about are different." He feels it is arrogant to think we can predict the results of our actions, for good or evil, but that nonetheless it is better to act than to remain inert. Does this idea have any resonance for you?
RS: It's an interesting statement to see in context with "Metal After Math." I have grown a little tired of the apocalypse, but I'm especially sick of seeing it as dry and desolate. A friend of mine was asking, "Where is the lush end of the world?" There was a photo essay on Chernobyl in National Geographic a while back, and it was interesting to see a real city overgrown and teeming with animal life. There's no question that it represents a disaster, and that its current state is the result of no people wanting to go anywhere near the place because they shit where they ate in just about the worst possible way, but it's definitely a beautiful, lush place.
EP: You live in Silver Lake, which is not far from Elysian Park, an incongruous greenspace on the edge of downtown that can be a bit dodgy in spots. It's also a notorious hotspot for clandestine sex. Ironically, the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology were the final resting place of those favored by the gods for their bravery and virtue. Tell me about the incidents or ideas that inspired your painting "Elysian Park."
RS: Ako and I go to Elysian Park all the time, it's within walking distance of our house. It's a beautiful place, one of my favorite spots in L.A. Yeah, the first thing I thought of when I saw the name of the park was the Elysian Fields, which I had in mind when I made the painting. It's such an easy little joke, and I hope those giant heads make some who read the title think of the gods and their Greek heaven. The idea for the piece came to me when we went for a walk there on a Memorial Day weekend and it seemed like spring had come into glorious bloom. Not only was the vegetation exploding, but people of all ages and sizes were following suit. Everywhere you looked there were people making out, and they were not holding back. There was a shocking amount of conspicuous dry humping, people planted on people, lips smacking away, hips busily moving, lots of groaning with pleasure. I couldn't stop laughing because it was amazingly rampant. There is something about parks that allows people from all walks of life to cut loose this way, not just the usual teenagers swallowing each other on a bus bench. In any case, the whole image for the painting came to me just like that, including the faces emerging from the ground, and I wanted it to feel a little like a classic European pastoral scene, with society out taking their recreation in it. I was aware of the park's reputation after dark, and felt that was a nice layer as well. I also had in mind the amazing photos of Kohei Yoshiyuki, where he went to Tokyo parks at night to take pictures of sexual encounters and the people who went to watch them. I had seen those pictures in school, and they came flooding back during our walk.
EP: "The Doll's Nest" and "Followers and Fog" remind me a bit of the absurd yet unsettling dream parade in Satoshi Kon's film Paprika. Would you say there has been any bleedover there?
RS: That was a great movie, and I can see the similarity, but I didn't have it in mind when I made those pieces. "The Doll's Nest" is probably closer in spirit. It is based on a dream I used to have combined with a television special my sister and I saw when we were younger, but we can't remember the name of it. We can't find anyone else who does, either. It was done in stop-motion animation, and its plot is like a blend of The Velveteen Rabbit and Toy Story. It scared the bejesus out of us. "Followers and Fog's" composition came to me when I was thinking of Chinese and Japanese screen paintings, where those epic stories are being told as clouds float over the scenes as a design element. There are often trails of people running through those scenes, such as the story of the flying rice pot where villagers chase after it in a long line. I'll bet Satoshi Kon has seen those, too.
EP: The mutant hybrids and airborne battles that fascinate you are in some ways reminiscent of the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, particularly his depiction of the War in Heaven, "Fall of the Rebel Angels," in which angels battle swarms of mutant monsters. His other battle paintings, like "The Triumph of Death" and "Mad Meg," also have that sense of infinite detail, visual pandemonium and ramified narrative that characterize your most ambitious paintings. Can you tell me why Bruegel's work speaks to you so profoundly? Why are his visions of war, over 400 years old, still so shockingly visceral to our modern eyes?
RS: Breugel is the great big master illustrator. He likes people and clearly sympathizes with them. All of the many people in his pictures seem well observed, he's paid attention to them. While they may be stand-ins or symbols for this or that idea, they retain an individuality. I think his work is extra-appealing because he's not a preacher and he's not a liar. A lot of the work is allegorical, particularly the visions of war, but they have that same feeling of true observation and brain power in them that I mentioned earlier. They are not glorifications like the creepily proto-fascist work of Jacques-Louis David. I'm fascinated but often repulsed by the neo-classicism of Renaissance painting and those who followed, like David, who made these big battle scenes where they might depict the heroes and villains of modern wars as the heroes of antiquity, often making them look like powerful Roman sculpture. Blecch. What a load of pompous lies.
I also like that his space, like Bosch's, feels like a place to wander through, and while it verges on the cartoony, it feels more real to me than say, Michelangelo or David's work, where you're kept at a distance, looking through a frame at a stage set of symbols and hierarchies. Looking at the "Triumph of Death," you see the real, actual triumph of death illustrated. He did it. It's a perfect picture of death's inevitability, and there's a feeling of real horror and tragedy that anyone who belongs to the living would speed up such an end for anyone. There are great juicy tidbits, such as the king trying to take his riches with him, and this is one of his few pictures where there are hordes depicted as a faceless mass. It's perfectly appropriate. Another one where that happens, "The Suicide of Saul," has a characterless mass of soldiers, which of course is also perfectly appropriate. Where else do men lose their identity so completely but in armies? It's the army as a whole that has so much character in that picture, a wave of armor and spears. It's interesting that the soldiers in "The Suicide of Saul" and "Massacre of the Innocents" are largely without character, seen as a mob, but the human soldiers in the "Triumph of Death" are given individuality.
EP: What other painters or illustrators from the past move you powerfully, and what aspects of their work do you find most intriguing?
RS: Too many! Off the top of my head...
Edgar Degas — camera-eyed brain, radical composer with figure study perfection
Francisco de Goya — Killer etchings, master of folly — feel the doom of the Black Paintings, something not to miss being stunned by in person
Pablo Picasso — See these paintings in person, funny, dynamic, believe the hype
Egon Schiele — graphic master hand twister, landscapes are the dope
Katsushika Hokusai — mad master cartoon head
Vincent van Gogh — explode
Rembrandt van Rijn — the heaviness of being
Hieronymous Bosch — mad preacher of apocalypse alchemy
Saul Steinberg — magic line man
Ralph Steadman — splatterbrains
Guy Billout — quiet sanity bender
Utagawa Hiroshige — perfect color punch design world
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi — warrior ghost meat lovers pizza
The Bayeux Tapestry — still the best illustrated war epic
Mary Blair — adventures in color in color adventures — concept paintings were better than the movies she worked for
Anonymous Show Biz Production Painters — the genius hacks of the meat system
Edward Gorey — beyond classic eccentricity
J.M.W. Turner — unbearable, incomparable lightness
George Grosz — savage line freak
Wayne Thiebaud — chunk shape paint creamer
EP: If you could hang just one classic painting from history on the wall of your studio, what would it be?
RS: That is tough. Breugel's would be high on the list. It would be a tough choice between "Children's Games," " Netherlandish Proverbs" or "Lent vs. Carnival." Probably the "Proverbs." Actually, if I could forego a painting and get an original and full set of Hokusai's Manga, I think I'd go for that.
EP: You seem to be of a somewhat bookish bent, as you've spent a large part of your life working in libraries and bookstores. As an avid reader, I'm prone to making literary associations, and some of your work reminds me of passages in Ballard and Borges. What books would you say inspire you creatively, and what in particular you do find moving about them?
RS: Borges is in there. I haven't read much Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition and Empire of the Sun are it, but those were great and I'll be reading more. Books that hit me hardest tend to inspire me to be better at what I do, rather than make me try my hand at what the author has done. It would be impossible for me to do anything resembling what Vladimir Nabokov and the Hernandez Brothers have done, but reading Lolita, Human Diastrophism or the Locas stories is special. I return to those books, and they get better every time. They are breezy without being remotely light. Speaking of which, I'm really enjoying Don Quixote. Everything I've just mentioned is rich, sparkling with intelligence and humor, and fun to read. They don't adhere unnecessarily to any mood or overriding philosophy and the characters feel like they are exposed to any experience that might come along. They live in a complex world and each author's style runs directly alongside the stories, never pulling ahead or falling behind. In a completely different vein, the past few years have been saturated by a lot of non-fiction dealing with wartime. Out of all that material, I most love The Berlin Diaries by Marie Vassiltchikov, I Will Bear Witness by Victor Klemperer, and Dispatches by Michael Herr. All of those are very unique, very well-written perspectives directly from the inside of hell.
Study for "Pastoral In a Future Passed"
EP: Is there anything else you're finding really inspiring right now?
RS: Shunji Enomoto's Golden Lucky, Todd Haynes' movies, The Historical Encyclopedia of Costumes by Albert Racinet, and The White Ribbon.
EP: Tell me what we can expect to see at your upcoming solo exhibition, "Muscle Memories," which opens at Copro Gallery on Saturday, August 7th.
RS: Only a few plates, but the servings will be heaping.
EP: What else is on the horizon for you? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?
RS: I'll be having a solo show in early 2011 at Rowan Morrison Gallery in Oakland, and there are a couple books taking shape, so I hope to complete those and get them out there within the next couple years. I'm feeling a pull to begin branching out into other mediums, I've become interested again in photography and film, but we'll see. Time is so short.