The Washington Post: In the Galleries: Tension and Beauty Collide in Michael Sastre's Paintings


In the galleries: Tension and beauty collide in Michael Sastre’s paintings
By Mark Jenkins November 18, 2016


Michael Sastre’s “Jungle Carnival (Spoonbills), 2014, oil on wood panel, 12 by 16 inches. On view through Nov. 20 at Kaplan Gallery, VisArts at Rockville. The artist’s realist oils depict gentle moments of light and color, punctuated by dark and menacing images. (Michael Sastre)

In his realist oils, Michael Sastre depicts pink flamingos, green jungles and everyday life in Caribbean hamlets. Oh, yeah, and drug smuggling. The artist’s VisArts show, “Collision/Collusion: A Personal Underground,” could be a collection of unusually detailed storyboards from a planned narco-thriller, or a collaboration between John James Audubon and cocaine-conspiracy reporter Gary Webb. When the painter includes a drive-in theater in one vignette, the movie on the screen is “Scarface.”

Yet Sastre, who has a studio in Rockville and lives part time in Miami, doesn’t disclose a political or even narrative agenda. In the foreground of his paintings are gentle moments, such as a river baptism or a dog’s nap. The drug-laden aircraft that swoop through these landscapes are as everyday as the birds whose flights mirror the planes’ movements.

The artist has “a very close family connection to the world depicted in his recent work,” a mysterious biographical note reports. But Sastre seems just as interested in the pictures’ settings as in their activities. He carefully renders dense foliage, crimson skies and complex reflections in languid rivers. The show also includes pencil sketches and airplane parts, but it’s most compelling when all of its elements — light and color, scenery and activity, banality and menace — combine in a vision of radiant nature and grubby humanity.

Michael Sastre: Collision/Collusion: A Personal Underground On view through Nov. 20 at Kaplan Gallery, VisArts at Rockville, 155 Gibbs St., Rockville. 301-315-8200.


VisArts at Rockville: Collision/Collusion

Michael Sastre: Collision/Collusion – A Personal Underground

October 21 – November 20, 2016
Kaplan Gallery, VisArts

Opening Reception: Friday, October 28, 7 – 9 PM
Artist Talk: TBD


Michael Sastre’s recent series of paintings explores the movement of contraband via clandestine airstrips in Florida. The paintings reference a parallel economy where ordinary life collides and colludes with a subculture of smuggling activities. Sastre’s narrative paintings, presented in an installation with airplane parts and “swamp stuff”, are quirky, funny, disorienting, and smart. They elude to the Romantic sublime themes found in British and American land and seascape painting and to pirate genre painting. In beautiful, vast natural surroundings touched by extraordinary color and light, are very ordinary, yet nefarious characters engaged in criminal activities.


Sastre began this series long after discovering a very close family connection to the world depicted in his recent work. He literally has been using his latest paintings to exact some sort of “revenge through ridicule” and to reveal the contradictions that are hidden in plain sight. He has no dogmatic social message, just acts as an observer. The depth of this underground reality defies any sort of organized war. He is one man grappling with how the narco world rubs up against his personal/cultural reality.


About the artist: Michael Sastre has broadly exhibited across the United States including 23 solo exhibitions. His works are included in both private and public collections. He is the recipient of a State Arts Council Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts award. He currently divides his time between Derwood, Maryland and Miami, Florida. Sastre's paintings capture the tense duality of the landscape as a sublime natural phenomenon and as a remote, inaccessible site for illicit activities.  Paradise-like marshes and riverways set the scene for nefarious characters who arrive and depart from astonishingly beautiful, natural areas. Research for the artist's work is an art form in itself involving a great deal of archeological exploration through found imagery, metal scraps, and observation. Sastre's work delves into the tension and beauty of remote, inaccessible areas.


Collision/Collusion: A Personal Underground

Collision/Collusion: A Personal Underground
Description of work


Michael Sastre acquired a comfort with, maybe even a taste for, many things clandestine. His family pedigree was South Florida aviation. For years Michael witnessed (or at least tried to successfully navigate) the intrigue and subterfuge that came to define segments of that industry.


Drug smuggling, gun running, refugee smuggling, and rumored CIA sponsored operations ran parallel with legitimate passenger and cargo hauling from the areas’ airports.



The ironic juxtapositions of dramatic human events set on quasi-paradise environments are central to Sastre’s narrative paintings. For years Michael has explored this phenomenon of man’s intervention and passing thru the landscape while on a quest. Sometimes the figures in the painting may indicate either benevolent or nefarious action. Other times it is the detritus (usually a junked craft) that will hint at the narrative. Many of these paintings have been included in exhibitions titled “The Rafters” and “Smugglers” series.


Researching for a series of works can be an extensive task for the artist, “but”, says Michael, “it is also half the fun.” This research may involve a combination of: sketching places/people/ and old machinery, subject reading, oral interviews, archeology type travels, watching old film footage, and digging up photographs not previously published.


Whether it is a land or maritime narrative, Sastre sees his subjects functioning on the edges of frontier-like, inaccessible areas. On the fringes of forever, to dramatize the challenge, capturing the tension many of us feel whenever we venture deep into inaccessible areas. Inaccessible areas that are sometimes metaphorical for the mysteries of our own life journeys.

Kenneth Jassie, Ph.D. on Michael Sastre's The Waterways

Michael Sastre: Recent Work, The Waterways
By Kenneth Jassie, Ph. D.


It is something of a stretch to name Michael Sastre’s recent genre of painting “landscape”. Initially, Sastre offered the term landscape to describe the artful combination of luminescent skies, swaying trees, stirring grasses, and wildflowers, with marshes, lakes, and/or rivers. Yet given that all of the images contain water in some form, it would be most appropriate to borrow the title of one of his recent exhibitions: Waterways. It is the term that best conveys the critical visual, textual, sacramental, and symbolic importance of water in the artist’s vision.


Unlike many contemporary artists, the subject of Sastre’s recent work plays a significant role, and speaks directly to his admiration and awe before natural beauty. In numerous instances, the viewer is treated to a spectacle of “pure nature”, uninterrupted by the human figure or narrative device. Upon examining Morning Marsh (2002), we marvel at the vivid colors of water and sky and the stately posture of reeds and trees. And we dimly perceive the sparse heard of cows or flock of distant birds as emissaries of higher life forms that also serve to balance the composition. On the one hand, nature appears as an enchanting and ethereal entity. Or put another way, it is a vessel from which we may drink our fill of the beguiling fantasy of an Arcadian paradise. But on the other hand, Mr. Sastre gently reminds us that nature also exists outside the human mind. Sastre is a sensitive student of his environment, taking meticulous note of colors, sounds, smells, and textures, which he then tries to incorporate into his paintings. For instance, he recognizes that compared to the strong color contrasts of his Florida scenes, the flora of the Northeast is more analogous. Therefore, in a work such as Grazing Graces (2003), he restricts his northern palette largely to different shades of green. To his way of thinking, the natural world is a place of fragile beauty that is our responsibility to protect and preserve. Ultimately in Sastre’s art, the Romanticization of nature gives way to a subtle and thoughtful environmentalism.


Yet for all of the attention directed to illuminating the sky and the earth, it is clear that water in particular constitutes the soul of his subject matter. Mr. Sastre makes the point himself remarkably in reference to the art of Lucien Freud: “I would like to do with water what [Freud] did with flesh.” This comment is both a measure of how actively he relates to his sources as well as how strongly he considers water to hold a central, partly mystical place in his art. With River Bend (2001) and Lily Waters (2002), Sastre renders the turgid water using specific and dynamic colors, shapes, and textures. Thus, short streaks of blue and white paint, surrounded but not surmounted by hazy green and other tones, serve to isolate the water portion from the rest. Intensified and duly solemnized, water receives acknowledgement as the ultimate life-generating force.


Certainly, the basic realism of the paintings has a distinctive allure. However, the most meaningful and intriguing part is the form, namely the artistic arrangement of paint, color, and light. In more ways than one, Mr. Sastre’s waterways do not represent a 21st –century return to Romanticism. The way he handles paint (or “pushes” it, to use the artist’s own words),  applying it sometimes in a thick crusty manner, sometimes finely and delicately; the way he layers his composition, stacking areas of color in horizontal bands; is not like the Romantics, but strikingly modern. For example in Autumn Estuary (2001), the glowing yellow, orange, and red and the seething blue and green, layers, representing water, flowers, trees, and sky approximate Van Gogh’s expressionistic take on nature. However for the most part, Sastre’s works embody the tension of those 20th –century modernists, like Richard Diebenkorn, who juxtapose representational and non- representational elements in their art. Even a cursory glance reveals that Sastre’s natural-seeming forms are actually planes of color. Not quite as devolving as Diebenkorn’s Bay Area paintings, Sastre’s imagery does emerge firmly if uneasily in the realm of realism, as a compelling if somewhat mysterious picture of “pure nature.”


In terms of light, vivid colors mimic the effects of sunlight at different times of day. Morning Marsh (2002) portrays early and evening light with a transcendent beauty and quietude comparable to the stunning marsh scenes of American luminist Martin Heade. The overall quality of the light in Sastre’s paintings is uniform and appealing. However, as the artist freely admits, this consistency and beauty comes at the price of altering reality. Sastre expresses admiration for filmmakers’ use of artificial lighting, for instance, to metamorphose the pre-dawn darkness into midday brightness. And as a starting point for many of his paintings, he constructs a maquette, a photographic collage that combines the most desirable and artful views of water, skies, and trees. Thus upon closer inspection, the extremes of light and dark separating foreground and background, and water and sky, are not naturalistic; in other words, they do not embody a factual time of day. For that matter, the seeming undulations of flowers and trees represent the multivariate effects of the wind, but also manage to create dynamic areas of interest. Considering the form along with the content, the viewer may reach the inescapable conclusion that Sastre’s waterways are at least as much about painting as they are about trees, flowers, and water.



Sastre’s waterway paintings ultimately transcend their sources because they combine so much of the past with the present to take us to a place that is mythical as well as real. The works combine realism and abstraction, pure painting with pure nature, and visual and tactile beauty with art concepts. When Mr. Sastre completes his waterways series, then our knowledge of what is important in nature and in art relative to nature will be much increased. In so doing, Sastre will hopefully redefine his motifs in ways unimagined by Romantics and modernists alike.




Flint Institute of Arts: Recent Work, The Rafter Series

Michael Sastre:
Recent Work, The Rafters Series
By John B. Henry, Director of the Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, Michigan and previously Director of the Vero Beach Center for the Arts, Vero Beach, Florida

The pictorial kinship of Sastre’s paintings have to the recent diaspora of refugees from Cuba and Haiti is coincidental. Sastre, who was born in 1961 of Cuban parents, had heard accounts of people tossing themselves into the sea all his life. The stories of his childhood- of leaky fishing boats loaded with fish, shark attacks and of some fishing boats not returning to port at all- came back into focus for Michael Sastre in the Krome Detention Center in Miami. For nearly six years, Sastre taught English and art at Krome while maintaining a studio in Miami.


“My mother grew up in Cojimar, Cuba where Ernest Hemingway visited and lived periodically, during a time when there was a boom in the fishing industry.” This meant anybody willing to risk their lives at sea (many of them in small boats) could share in the opportunity. At Krome, Sastre’s childhood memories of tales of life and death dramas set against the beautiful Caribbean backdrop resurfaced as he learned of the extraordinary risks taken by so many Cubans and Haitians who faced the perils of the sea. “As long as I can recollect, I’ve heard first-hand accounts by people who have crossed the Florida Straits on a raft, others who have run into trouble while fishing or pleasure boating, and still others who have gone to deliver guns to Central and South America and smuggle drugs on the return trip by either plane or boat. At the moment, I feel I have too much invested in the region not to use these stories as subject matter.”

Michael Sastre’s paintings are first and foremost paintings in the romantic tradition. Like the Romanticism of the nineteenth century, these works emphasize the emotional and imaginative appeal of what is heroic and adventurous. They idealize the common man and exalt nature, the exotic and the remote. Stylistically, Sastre relies on the techniques of applying paint and arranging composition that his nineteenth century predecessors used. Exaggerated lighting conditions, strong atmospheric and coloristic effects, and unnatural perspectives and asymmetry are devices he uses to place the viewer between the painter at his easel and the subject of the painting.

Subjectively, the canvases are staged performances of dramatic courage, fate and hope played out against the vast spacial backdrop of the sea. His characters are anonymous and archetypal, their features and distinguishing characteristics too generalized to determine any former rank or class. They represent the existential “everyman” adrift in the universe and whose fate rides on the currents and winds. They are portrayed in moments we can only imagine- moments of despair which must precede any final hour before rescue or disaster. They are reminiscent of what Winslow Homer said about his painting , The Gulf Stream: “This is what the voyage of life comes down to: facing death when hope is gone and there are no witnesses.” Like Homer, Sastre has no heroes leading the charge. The stories he tells have no endings either. This is because, for Sastre, the subject of man adrift on the ocean is metaphorical of the painter in the studio: a singular, courageous commitment to be alone, cut off and resigned to spend monotonous hours in front of the canvas, in search of landmarks and, all the while, affected by the currents of the times and the winds of the critics.



Artist Statement: The Rafters

Michael Sastre
Artist Statement: The Rafters

An exodus occurs---quick and stealthy—escaping from want to visions of plenty. Remnants of a jerry-rigged craft, tires lashed together with rope, bits of clothing stretched over the gaping holes to provide some separation between human and the elements, float upon the vast expanse of sea. The makeshift craft faces the uncertain violence of the ocean and weather. Among the opportunists who stalk the seas, seagulls and sharks are attracted to the detritus of a voyage undertaken. In these paintings, the lack of a human presence pays homage to the passion of the human spirit.

In the mosaics, the sea presents its bounty. The raft morphs into a round paella dish, a nature morte, in which the predators have become prey, and the human passion becomes one of joie de vivre, of plenty and the hearth that one comes home to after a long journey.

Poem Dedicated to Michael Sastre's Painting, Nightwind

The Lantern
by anonymous poet


A warm yellow glow
Over black choppy waves
It emanates outward
Yet circles inward
Wrapping around a small, simple group
Of the bravest of souls


Several men work to control the sail
One looks ahead to an uncertain course
Another cuts into their only food
A shark that nearly dashed their hopes


A mother holds her young son
Watching calmly in spite of the risk
As the boat cuts on through the sea
Into the darkness ahead


A warm yellow glow
Over black choppy waves
It emanates outward
Yet circles inward
Wrapping around a small, simple group
Of the bravest of souls.





Howard County Times: The Rafter Series

Howard County Times
Visual Arts: HCC exhibit
Howard Community College’s Rause Company Foundation Gallery
January 27, 2011

Painter heads for the open seas


Artist Michael Sastre is selectively representational in his work and has tightly cropped paintings that feature what is on and around small rafts. There are no people on these tiny boats and the boats themselves seem so slapped together that you might find yourself thinking they belong to desperate refugees who no longer occupy them.

Sastre’s numerically titled “Rafter Series” amounts to a narrative in which you’re only given suggestive clues. Bananas sit on one raft, a fish has somehow ended up on the floor of another and a seagull perches on the side of a third.

The absence of a direct human presence is rather haunting, and it also seems a bit ominous owing to the sharks, fish and other sea creatures submerged or partly breaking through the surface of the surrounding water.

In terms of his painterly approach, Sastre favors crisply depicted rafts and visibly raised definitional lines for the waves. Even though the fish tend to float in and out of focus, the overall compositions rely on assertive colors and sharp distinctions.

Sastre also exhibits glass mosaics, including “Fishing Boy”, in which the young subject engages in that activity thanks to the blue and green glass shards used to depict him. Other glass and tile mosaics present appetizing images of crabs and other seafood. These are cheerful images, to be sure, but they’re decorative and don’t prompt the prolonged consideration that the paintings do.

By Mike Giuliano


The Miami Herald: The Power of Landscapes

The Miami Herald
The Power of Landscapes
Works by Michael Sastre
March 7, 1999


It is a pity that the space at the Dade Cultural Resource Center, a launching venue for many artists in our community (some of excellence), is so small to accommodate the landscape exhibition by Michael Sastre, a truly first-class exhibition.


the snag 4.jpg

The exhibitor, who has lived many years in our area and graduated from Florida International University, is above all his training and ongoing projects, a born landscape painter. Sastre captures what is possible in landscapes in all their facets and spectrum. He also has the ability to use nature as a vehicle to tell a story.


Of all the narratives the artist has extracted from his landscapes, the most dramatic and open-ended is when he uses the ocean as a spacial backdrop, and the figures of “rafters” (boat people) as protagonists, in a man and nature relationship of life and death.


Without a doubt, the decision to use the boat people as protagonists was the result of Michael having worked for five years at the Krome Immigration Detention Center in Miami. There he was in daily contact with those who seek freedom by making the treacherous crossing in the waters off the Florida Straits.



First-rate examples in this series are works such as ‘Rudderless’ and ‘Nightwind’. However, where the artist brings everything to bear in his treatment of man and the sea is in the impressive piece titled ‘The Snag’. In this painting we find two men in a precariously flimsy boat being circled by an enormous squalus in a churning ocean.These elements form a kind of trinity that reinforce the reality of the sea epic in all its confluence.


In works such as this, we see the efficacy of the artist’s strong brushstroke, which in some instances may remind us of Van Gogh and his intelligent and copious use of color. In these dramatic paintings, there is a material paint quality that ads to the depth of the narrative.


In spite of the drama the artist conveys, there is in his approach something very special. It is the benefit of detachment- an objectivity in the presentation of his imagery that paradoxically, instead of taking away emotional engagement, reinforces the benefits of meticulous observation- an observation that is true to the reality of objects in nature.


Sastre passes with ease from landscapes of the ominous to landscapes of the beautiful. Works like ‘Santa Fe River’, where the artist establishes a rich play of reflections, or the delicate but intense ‘St. Mark’s Preserve’, give faith to the existence of enchanted places; of nature in the stages of full plentitude.


This exhibition reaffirms the quality of an artist who knows what he wants to paint and knows how to paint it- something that is too often overlooked. Sastre is truly a visual naturalist, with an individual voice, and from these individual works he assumes the best of what is possible in landscape painting.


By Armando Alvarez Bravo
The Miami Herrald