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July 7 - August 19, 2001 at S.B. Contemporary Arts Forum, Santa Barbara

by Jody Zellen

Sandow Birk's newest paintings explore social and political issues relating to California. As always he paints realistically, drawing stylistically from the historical traditions of American and European landscape painters. Birk's paintings present places, people and artifacts that are recognizable, yet are twisted precisely by the use of an archaic visual rhetoric. He spins tales in convincing pictorial spaces with real world names and landmarks.

In an earlier body of work, Birk painted the Great War of the Californias--a ficticious war that lasted for seven months and left 20,000 dead. In this war battles raged between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Getty Center was defended. Battles were fought on Telegraph Hill. Birk created the battles both in his head and on his canvases, painting exacting details of imaginary war. His current project sets to paint all the prisons that exist in California, depicting them in the style of the great landscape artists. While researching this project, Birk found out that California has jailed a higher percentage of its population than any other state or nation in the world. The fact that every California State prison is overcrowded, and that more money was spent on incarcerating Californians than educating them, led Birk to reexamine the so called "myth of California" and the difference between its early depictions and its social realities.

For this series of 33 paintings Birk drove throughout the state photographing the prisons. He transformed his photographs into paintings in which prisons became engulfed by their surroundings. According to Birk, the works are "based on the California landscape paintings of the 1880s, the image of California, and the romance of the West and the reality of what the West has become."

Each painting depicts as its titled subject a prison, but Birk clearly delights in interpreting the open spaces, desert planes and mountainous hills of the California landscape. There is an interesting and familiar tension here between employing an overtly romantic style to present mundane things like prisons, roadways, parking lots and electrical towers.

Drawing from the past to depict the present, his paintings have an other-worldliness created through light. In the large painting San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, CA the prison is hidden in the background below the dramatic sky and elements borrowed from Albert Bierdstadt's 1870 work Passing Storm over the Sierra. In this and many of the paintings here Birk steers clear of dark grays and the kind of murky atmosphere that would announce the felt presence of the prisons, favoring instead a more jarring emotional collision.

In State Prison, Centinela-Imperial, CA the focus is on a lush green flowering cactus. From the cactus in the foreground your eyes travel up to the sky, where there is a bird in flight and traces of airplane smoke. You then look toward the jagged mountain peaks and to the desert floor below. Nestled at the base of the rock formations is the prison. Similarly in Institution for Women, Frontera, CA the dramatic sky and lone cow dominate the painting. Drawn to the yellow road signs that point in two directions, you find the prison only later, far off in the distance. The sunset on a distant mountain is the center of California Correctional Center, Susanville, CA, with the prison barely visible against the colorful mountain expanse. There are exceptions to this diminution of man's fallen presence. For example, California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison, Corcoran, CA and Avenal State Prison, Avenal, CA focus on the prisons' towers. Although light is still a dominant subject, the architecture of the prison is more clearly defined.

Birk's intention is to create paintings that draw on the long tradition of the romantic American landscape in order to parody their vision of the West as a "promised American paradise." He does this aptly by juxtaposing the undeniable visual beauty of California with the harsh reality of its prisons. The lushness of the paintings relate to notions of the sublime, to hope, and to the relationship of man to nature. The depiction of prisons in such places grounds the work in, to use Birk's words, "the realities of the society that resulted from following that dream."

“San Quentin, State Prison,
San Quentin, CA”, oil and acrylic
on canvas, 66 x 90”, 2001.

“Correctional Training Facility,
Soledad, CA”, oil and acrylic
on canvas, 37 x 37”, 2001.

“California State Prison,
Centinela-Imperial, CA”, oil and
acrylic on canvas, 35 x 43”, 2001.

“California Institution for
Women, Frontera, CA”, oil
on canvas, 26 x 32”, 2000.

“California Substance Abuse
Treatment Facility and State
Prison, Corcoran, CA”, oil and
acrylic on canvas, 11 x 8”, 2001.