by Roberta Carasso

(Diane Nelson Fine Art, Orange County) Is there an art movement afoot? Three artists, who never met--but who have strong visual and philosophical commonalties--are brought together for Contingent Reality: Group Surrealism Exhibition. The art of Sandow Birk, Jerry Wayne Downs, and Valentin Popov is propelled by a classic technique which allows the artists to render their individual styles exquisitely. All three are known for their surrealist narratives, juxtaposing different eras and locales. Modern imagery is incorporated into historic art styles, or older imagery is rendered with current techniques.

Birk, known for his biting humor, creates a Turner-like seascape that precisely mimics an 18th-Century canvas of two majestic English frigates. Except in these waters an astronaut has just landed, and a helicopter hovers nearby. A floating surfer observes the scene. One of Birk's more provocative pieces is Cycle of Life (City and Suburbs). At first, it seems like a group portrait. It is, however, the life of two boys commencing from birth--one in the suburbs, the other in the rawness of the city. The boys form a serpentine line of figures as they grow from infant to adult. Eventually, one dies in a hospital on life supports. The other lies face down, in a pool of blood in the street. Their destiny is a mix of inevitability and choice.

Downs, who in past series dealt with cross-eras from Indian tribes to astronauts, now manipulates time and space with trompe l'eoil effects. He creates a sense of upside-down and right-side up. Elevators go nowhere and a blue, cloud-filled sky becomes an empty backdrop. Traditional positions of up, down, sides, front, and back become topsy turvy. In Red Trees Painted a chair is half in a room and half in a forest. A gardener paints the tops of trees red while standing on a ladder that partially disappears; and an ocean is seen through the forest's windows. In other works, silent staircases go skyward, and a vaporous sky becomes solid cubes suspended from heaven.

Jerry Wayne Downs,
"Red Trees Painted," 20 x 16".


Sandow Birk, "Sovereign of the Seas",
oil/acrylic on canvas, 43 x 54", 1996.

Jerry Wayne Downs,
"Visitation," 20 x 24".

Valentin Popov, "Life,"
enamel/oil on aluminum panel,
tondo 86" dia., 1994.

Russian-born Popov's art appears the most visceral of the trio. He creates realistically and abstractly. In his tin paintings, Popov incorporates definitive Rembrandt imagery reproduced precisely with a deft hand. Then he adds words and free-flowing brushstrokes that bring home the contrasts in current and past art styles. Like Downs, Popov writes poetry. Words are essential to Popov's art. They reveal his artistic intent, lie on the surface of the picture plane, or reside quietly, half-submerged in paint. Life is a Popov painting that sums up the exhibition. It has a realistic presence--old in appearance yet modern in execution. Two children, a boy and a girl, stare at an hour glass, watching intently as the grains descend and time passes. The children represent the fresh and innocent spirit needed to appreciate the diverse gifts different eras bring. Such is the work of Birk, Downs, and Popov, artists whose focus transcends time and place to make for a most delightful exhibition.