by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.
(Koplin Gallery, West Hollywood) Anyone who is a devoted surfer, has a twisted sense of humor, and understands the history of art is OK by me; the fact that on top of it Sandow Birk is a talented painter is gravy. Now, I love art. It's the profession I chose, or maybe was seduced by. But, I am sorry, there are times when people in our little world just take themselves too damn seriously, and Mr. Birk's paintings are the enema that we need occasionally.
The title of this show gets us into the proper perspective: In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works from the Great War of the Californias. This is a continuation of his earlier series, Historical Paintings of the Battle of San Francisco, which depicted imaginary battles waged as San Francisco defends itself from invasion by the armies of Los Angeles. What we are witness to is a series of fabrications presented as though they are historical documents.
Birk's paintings appeal to a variety of interests. First of all, he calls into question the veracity of recorded history and the very nature of what is truth. We all remember the famous quote that "Truth is the first casualty of war," and we could probably add politics to that. The way he presents these "serious" works that are so obviously fictional, Birk calls into question other images that we have perhaps accepted, uncritically, at face value.
Secondly, while we cannot help but laugh at the natural animosity that exists between these two disparate geographic entities that students of California history will recall almost did divide us into two states at one time, Birk exaggerates this into a full scale war. But far more telling than his wicked humor is his adaptation of styles and motifs from some of the finest painters of the history painting genre, namely Eugene Delacroix and Francisco Goya. It is this playful borrowing that just kills me. This guy is really good.
"The Spirit of Los Angeles,"
"DJ Downs (The Battle
"The Bombardment of San
The Spirit of Los Angeles is a spoof of the revolutionary war flag, drummer, and fife motif so familiar from Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. However, instead of the bare-breasted personification of liberty waving the French Tri-color leading the masses, we get a young black girl, a Domino's delivery boy holding a big gulp, and a Latino eating a hot dog, all emerging from the chaos of disaster. Nearby, littering the ground, is a shopping cart with oranges spilling out, an ubiquitous expired parking meter jutting into the composition, while an abandoned computer keyboard lies helplessly on the ground.
But now for the best. Instead of the naked man that Delacroix places in the foreground, Birk substitutes a Piñata and a man dressed in black lying on the ground holding up a plastic spoon. This is a hilarious spoof of Goya's depiction of St. Francis losing his battle with the devil for the soul of a dying man. The artist contemplates the nature of chaos and makes visible the reality of evil in society. Like his earlier counterpart, Birk uses the folklore of his own era to raise questions that the public is uncomfortable talking about.
This work is biting, fun to look at, and a joy for anyone with just a little knowledge of art history. Birk's historical fiction is the more interesting for deliberately resembling a style decidedly lacking fictional or ironic intent. Who knows, perhaps in the next couple millenia our history will be lost and these paintings will become rediscovered artifacts that will be regarded as depicting the lost true history of California.