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March 1 - April 5, 2003 at Koplin Del Rio Gallery, West Hollywood

by Ray Zone

“The Inferno," 2003, oil and acrylic
on canvas, 66" x 120"

“Canto V: Paolo and Francesca,"
2002, ink on mylar, 17 x 11".

“Canto VIII," 2002,
ink on mylar, 17 x 11".

"Canto XXVI," 2002
ink on mylar, 17 x 11".

Sandow Birk is a true post-modern classicist. For over a decade, Birk has revisited historical genres and come up with satirical contemporary turns on age-old human foibles. In Birk's busy and capable hands, everything old is new again and it all takes place in a post-apocalyptic California littered with the remains of popular culture.

Whether he's ridiculing fascism with his Prisonation series or aping bellicosity with his Historical Works on the Great War of the Californias, Birk is Southern California's preeminent artist of dystopia. Mike Davis definitively described the West Coast impulse to armageddon in his 1998 book Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. In his extensive paintings and drawings, Birk has visualized it.

Birk's new exhibit, Dante's Inferno, marks the formal inauguration of the Koplin Del Rio Gallery with Eleana Del Rio taking over full proprietorship of the gallery from Marti Koplin, who is retiring. Dante's Inferno, featuring original drawings and paintings from Birk's new series and a limited edition book from Trillium Press, is an auspicious beginning. Birk has remade Dante's Inferno in a contemporary mode and set it amidst the vast urban entropy of present-day Los Angeles, the City of Angels as Hell.

Working with writer Marcus Sander, Birk has also recast Dante's original text in present-day urban vernacular. Here is a sample from Canto XXI: The Devils of the Fifth Ditch: "'Relax, you motley squad of vigilant monsters,' Virgil said, raising his hand. 'Before you try to cause strife with your feeble weapons, you'd best listen to what I got to say.'"

Printed in a limited edition of 100, the fine art book of Birk's Inferno is hand-signed by the artist and includes 35 full-page original lithographs and 36 vignettes. Working with a drafting pen (and a 000 nib) on textured film, Birk's illustrations reference the classic Gustave Dore engravings from the 19th Century edition of Dante's Inferno. The intricate line work and dense cross hatching was finished with black pencil. To etch white lines back into the dense surface of the film, Birk scratched and scraped the drawings with scalpels and razor blades.

Like Dore's engravings, Birk's drawings are sombre, filled with a dark somnolence. But there is great wit in small details and, as with all of Birk's oeuvre, a fine and dry satire quietly evident. Take Birk's plate for Canto XXVI, for example. The poet Virgil is accompanied on his sojourn through the metropolitan hell by a young slacker in jeans. Standing on a promontory which supports the Hollywood sign, the sober pair gaze down into an urban pit filled with legions of the damned. A hellish light, as with Dore's engraving, emanates up from the depths of the inferno.

Canto VIII depicts Virgil, garbed in an American flag, stepping forth onto the shores of Hell from a small boat which has just crossed the stormy waters of the River Styx. The dark landscape of Hell is garnished with tattered signage for Ralph's, Starbucks Coffee, donuts and fast food. Other passengers on the boat include a surfer with his board wearing a backwards baseball cap and Walkman and an itinerant gardner in tennis shoes with a leaf blower on his back.

Birk's Inferno paintings have equally telling contemporary details. Dante in the Wilderness depicts a querulous young slacker in a grimy alleyway filled with graffiti and industrial detritus. In the distance a faintly illuminated Shell gas station sign is shown, its letter "S" burnt out.

A magnum opus painting on view is simply called Inferno. It serves as a summing up for the present exhibit as well as all of Birk's apocalyptic imagery. Inferno depicts the entire state of California as one gigantic, strip-mined pit. Looking north from the ruins of Los Angeles and its choked, nocturnal freeways, we see the Golden State as an immense overworked hole in the ground. It is the disastrous flip side of our Western bounty and promise. It's motto might well be "Eureka! We have lost it!"

Birk's Inferno encompasses, as well, America. Through the pall of dust and smoke, we glimpse in the distance a buried Mount Rushmore. The westward push of the pioneers toward a new life has been used up. The shattered remains of the Golden Gate Bridge jut out over trackless mounds of exhausted soil. In the distance Mount Saint Helens perpetually spews out dense, volcanic smoke.

The poet has given us a glimpse of our own Hell in the making.