Published September 28th, 2022 by Jocelyn Suzuka Figueroa
A visual exploration previewing Michal Sagar's latest exhibition, opening October 6th at Form + Content Gallery
A laden silence hangs in the air of What Remains.
This silence is built by the installation of a sacred space: rows of drawings depicting fragments of life in reserved color, leading the viewer to an altar of radiating imagery and bone white.
The space is a singular hall whose walls are lined with a sense of monumentality: six large scale drawings of muted colors which are stripped of ornament. Within these drawings are images of feminine bodies amidst temporal swirling waves; radiating floral forms; and suggestive, not-quite-clinical renderings of teeth. Viewing these works in sequence pulls the viewer deeper and closer to its culmination: hanging white silk draped across the hall, collecting ceramic fragments like bone at the bottom of a riverbed. Framed by this hanging silk are a series of six porcelain artifacts, encompassing one final drawing whose imagery is the accumulation of what lies before it: the swirling wave, the tooth, and the floral.
The gathered residue of life and loss.
If only given a brief glance, it would be easy to walk away with a sense of stillness caused by the colors, created by a pallor which rests over the images. Artist Michal Sagar achieves this by intermingling wax with graphite, charcoal, pastel, conte, oil paint, pumice, and sand. In moments, the wax deepens; in others, it dulls. Only in momentary bursts do these other materials resist the silencing of the wax: a flare of red indicating a rose amongst an unbroken wandering line; charcoal set deep behind a set of translucent teeth. Regardless, each image finds a way to impart movement, vitality, and life within this waxy, bone-white pallor.
Top: Invitation, graphite, charcoal, conté, pastel, sand, pumice, wax, oil paint on paper 40” x 60”. Bottom: In the Wake, graphite, charcoal, conté, pastel, sand, pumice, wax, oil paint on paper 40” x 60”
The first drawings the viewer will encounter on the right wall, Invitation and In the Wake, utilize the swirling motion of ocean waves to create a floating movement within their delicate surfaces. In Invitation, the image of a young girl — Sagar’s granddaughter at three years old — stands amidst light, airy, blue-white waves, which envelop the child in a quiet embrace. By her feet are rose petals, suggesting that the girl is in the act of tending to a garden, fostering new growth and beautiful life. By contrast, the more laden In the Wake depicts an older woman — the memory of Sagar’s mother — lying across the bottom edge of the image, her face obscured and the waves chopping above her. The swirls crash rather than float, with thicker, broader strokes and drips of white that collect, pool, and cut across the darker grays of the female figure lying prone. Hints of the child’s rose petals in Invitation float onto In the Wake, connecting the two works through a floral legacy.
Invitation and In the Wake are arranged one atop the other; granddaughter above grandmother. This diptych deepens in significance with the knowledge that, upon her death, Sagar’s mother wished for her body to be deposited in the ocean.
The youthful nurturing of life above the residue of a life lived, given freely to the waves.
Serpentine Line of Beauty, graphite, charcoal, conté, pastel, sand, pumice wax, oil paint on paper 40” x 60”
Serpentine Line of Beauty and Generation continue to center the feminine by putting the rose front-and-center. In Serpentine Line of Beauty, wandering lines create abstracted bodily forms. At the top center, these lines tighten and culminate into a spiraling rose, colored in red and pink pastels and oil paint. These colors, alongside the pale ground creating the drawing’s base layer, are shaded to indicate flesh whose folds and crevices suggest female genitalia. All other lines radiate outwards from the very center of this vaginal rose — the point of origin — encompassing the entirety of the surface. Meanwhile, Generation does not radiate from a singular point, but rather three areas of focus: three roses. These roses are at different stages of life: the leftmost with a fleshy, pink open center and full, rounded petals; the middle with a more subdued color and petals which have begun to close in; and the rightmost having a withered, drooping appearance. All are drawn with care.
Generation, graphite, charcoal, conté, pastel, sand, pumice, wax, oil paint on paper, 40” x 60”
Serpentine Line of Beauty calls to the point of all origin — the fleshy womb — in a loving, delicate manner. Generation reintroduces the concepts of life and loss depicted in Invitation and In the Wake, putting emphasis on femininity as it ages. In these works, life is created, lived, and lost — all in beautiful, wandering splendor.
Because even the most youthful rose eventually succumbs to the earth.
Interestingly enough, Serpentine Line of Beauty is paired below Aperture, a drawing of a dental x-ray set in an abstracted jaw at a wide, zoomed-in focus. Depicted in cold grays, Aperture uses the familiar language of clinical x-ray scans and abstracts it towards ghostly memory: the jaw taking over the entirety of the picture plane, seemingly upside-down, with restless, searching spectral marks to indicate further bone and flesh which frame both the top and bottom of the image. The teeth set in this wide jaw are elongated and, like the roses, referential to the human figure: appearing almost as the legs and torsos of people tightly standing in line. The ghosted white marks pool, drip, and are streaked down the center of the image, cutting through the dark charcoal depths of the cavernous mouth between the rows of teeth. The image is otherworldly, yet so very primal — a reminder that, even in this clinical format, humans are animals with anatomy meant to rip and tear.
Aperture, graphite, charcoal, conté, pastel, sand, pumice wax, oil paint on paper 40” x 60”
Aperture has an intriguing relationship with Serpentine Line of Beauty: the vaginal origins of birth, now seen below this abstracted representation of teeth, becomes complicated. It is intriguing to note: while the flesh will rot and decay upon death, the teeth remain. To this day, archaeologists can surmise crucial details of the daily lives of ancient peoples by the wear of teeth in the skull. Pockets of the history of humanity can be filled in by the lineage of teeth. This is in contrast to the flesh of the rose, the flesh of the womb: soft tissue will decay, rot, and eventually be consumed by the earth, providing vital nutrients for new life to grow.
But teeth remain.
Close to the Bone, graphite, charcoal, conté, pastel, sand, pumice, wax, oil paint on paper 40” x 60”
Close to the Bone takes an even closer look at a dental scan, with no jaw in sight: the teeth take up the entirety of the picture plane. A dominating element in the image is a bright, bold light set within the opening of the mouth, right in the center of the teeth. It is not clear whether the light source is coming from in front or behind the teeth, which makes the viewer question their placement in relation to the image: are we, the viewer, outside the mouth and looking in, or are we instead inside, looking outward? If the light is coming from within the throat and behind the mouth, then what is its source? What is being depicted here?
We become aware that What Remains is withholding.
And now, after viewing these drawings, we come to the altar, Archaeology of Time. Here, ceramic intermingles with silk and drawing to present a space which the viewer must encounter in a physical manner: the long, draped white silk cuts across the hall, creating a protected, isolated space behind. In order to reach this point, the viewer must cross underneath the silk. In doing so, they may notice the way the sheer fabric filters the light from above. On the ground at the center of this hanging silk are ceramic fragments, smoothly curved and curled like pieces of bone. Both silk and ceramic appear as if bleached by the sun. These white forms speak to the interplays of light upon surfaces: the porous surface of the ceramic absorbs the light in a smooth, even manner; the shining silk cloth receiving and reflecting with beauty and movement, reminiscent of the dress of the young girl in Invitation, the swirling ocean of In the Wake, and the ghostly markings within Aperture and Close to the Bone. The energies found in the preceding drawings have permeated the altar within a dance of shadows upon textures both porous and silken, all bleached by the sun — the very same sun that has fostered the energy for the nutrients for every generation of life that has previously — and will ever — exist.
Archeology of Time (detail of installation), Ceramic on silk
Crossing under the silk marks the entering of a sacred space, under the white veil of life and the shroud of death. And it is here where we see the final pieces: a set of ceramic white teeth, unabashedly carrying with them the image of the feminine: folding, creasing porcelain wombs atop tapering slender legs. These teeth, the feminine and the artifact combined, surround the last of the large drawings. Into the Balance appears as a swirling rose overlaid onto long, pale white teeth. Unlike the others, this drawing is set vertically, and it takes full advantage of this format to impart an aching sense of monumentality on the tall, pillar-like teeth. Fleshy tendrils of pink circle the center, petals radiating outward over the sharp, vertical slants between the teeth, cutting downward and upward like daggers into the flower. The rolling waves of the ocean, of the dress, of the silk and the specter all make their appearances here: swirling around the rose, above the teeth, and obscuring the image in its waxy pallor. In tone, the image is muted — the wax ever present. But its centrality in the installation, and the protection provided to it by its location behind the white shroud and within the set of feminine teeth, suggest that this work is indeed significant: that the teeth in Into the Balance cannot be viewed with the clarity and charcoal depth seen in Aperture, nor the vibrant saturation found in Serpentine Line of Beauty. In combining these forms together — floral and tooth, compost and artifact — something is created that must be withheld from the viewer by a waxy veil.
Into the Balance, graphite, charcoal, conté, pastel, sand, pumice, wax, oil paint on paper 60” x 40”
Parts are parts. A rose petal is cellulose and water; a tooth is calcium. But we must believe that there is more here. What else is captured in these searching lines, and the clouded, dull surface of the wax? The swirl of oceans, the vibrations of rose petals expanding beyond its bounds? Within the frenetic energy of wandering forms and glints of light through a sheer fiber? It cannot be reduced to a simple matter of compostable flesh and cracking, bleached artifacts. Because without being tended to, these things deteriorate. But there is more here; something that permeates after these organic forms are gone. Something is being withheld, behind that waxy pallor — withheld from the viewer, and perhaps from Sagar herself.
What is it? After life fades, flesh decays, and even tooth and bone are ground to dust –
what remains? ◼︎
Archeology of Time, Ceramic on silk
What Remains opens October 6th and runs through November 12 with a reception October 8th 6pm - 8 pm and an artist talk October 13th 7pm - 8pm. To see more of the artist's work, visit michalsagar.com.
This article was originally written as part of MCAD's Launch Program Arts Writing Award. The article's author, Jocelyn Suzuka Figueroa, is an artist with a focus on fiber, painting, and sculpture. She holds an MFA degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
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