Return to Articles


March 4 - April 15, 2006 at Koplin Del Rio Gallery, West Hollywood
and February 4 - March 10, 2006 at CSU Fullerton Art Gallery, Orange County
and February 4 - March 20, 2006 at CSUF Grand Central Art Center, Orange County

by Jody Zellen

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

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

"The Minotaur: Canto XII,”
2002, ink on mylar, 17 x 11”.

Events in history have long been a point of departure for Sandow Birk. His drawings, paintings and prints that investigate social as well as political issues are created with skill and wit. Past series have included the epic “Great War of the Californias,” in which Los Angeles and San Francisco waged a fictitious all out war for control of the Golden State. In his paintings of prisons he created idyllic landscape paintings in the tradition of romantic American painters in order to parody their vision of the West as a “promised land of paradise.”

A rewriting and illustrating of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” set in contemporary urban America, was next on Birk’s agenda. Using references to current events and the contemporary landscape, Birk has created a modern view of Dante’s world. After 200 prints, twenty paintings, a new version of the text by Marcus Sanders and, three books later, the project was completed.

Birk’s prints and paintings of the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise fill their respective galleries. His images of Hell use Los Angeles as their source. The Hollywood Sign, freeway on and off ramps, the abundant mini-malls and fast food stands are suddenly landmarks of the damned. As a figure is guided through this wasteland by an American Flag-cloaked guide, one cannot help but recognize both the urban monuments and the obvious demise of the city. San Francisco stands in for Purgatory, and New York City as Paradise. While each of these cities has its unique offerings, in Birk’s symbolic appropriation of them as the backdrop of the “Divine Comedy,” none are welcoming places to be.

These may be contemporary works, but they draw uninhibitedly from the past. Birk is a skilled draftsman and has the ability to adapt the styles as well as the subject matter from artists he admires--Gustave Dore, Honore Daumier, Frederick Church, and George Bellows. But he transforms their visions while rendering his own distinct commentary on contemporary culture.

Last year Birk was invited by the San Diego Museum of Art to participate in its contemporary links series, in which an artist is commissioned to respond to works in its collections. The 149 lithographs by George Bellows in the museum’s holdings served as the source material for Birk’s new series, “The Leading Cause of Death in America,” which comprises the Koplin Del Rio show. Birk created a portfolio of ten etchings that draw from Bellows’ work, commenting on the news media, consumption, smoking and other causes of debilitation and death in America. In them we see our own collective dark, or at least down side. He depicts overweight, ailing and stressed out characters who inhabit a less than ideal world. Beautifully executed, these works fuse social commentary with its recurring twin, the unpleasant sides of reality. “Heart Attack” is based on Bellows’ “Counted Out,” a 1921 lithograph. In Bellows’ work the arching gesture of a referee divides the composition in two. In the foreground rests the fallen boxer, in the background stands the victor. Birk borrows freely from this composition, transforming the boxing scenario to one of a heart attack. The slumped victim lies in the foreground. The referee, now a doctor, stretches his arms out, grasping an IV while the boxer’s wife cowers in the background, wiping away her tears. Birk’s use of the print medium parallels Bellows’, and his refined use of line also references Bellow’s style.

"Average American (32 Donuts, 17
Bars of Soap, 1 Book)," 2005, oil
and acrylic on canvas, 28 x 34”.

"Suicide,” from "The leading causes of
death in America" series, 2005, print.

"Heart Attack,” from "The leading causes
of death in America" series, 2005, print.

Among the prints in “The Leading Causes of Death in America” are “Diabetes,” a depiction of two overweight teenagers chomping on snack food and soda, and “Cancer,” a portrait of an office worker sitting at his computer smoking while eating fast food from McDonalds. An image of "Suicide" depicts an individual atop the Golden Gate bridge looking down through the fog into the waters below. To accompany the presentation of the prints, Birk has been working on a series of still-life paintings of food. Citing the tradition of Dutch still lifes as an influence, Birk subverts their view of food as symbols of wealth and power into something ominous and life threatening. These representational paintings also reference Wayne Thiebaud’s images of food, yet where Thiebaud celebrated cake and donuts as symbols of affluence, Birk is clearly not celebrating Americans’ gluttonous consumption.

Birk straddles the line between artist and illustrator. The work comprising these shows functions as both, and indeed succeeds in numerous ways. Birk has something to say and the skill to say it. He is not afraid to be critical of contemporary culture, and while he continues to draw from the past, it is only to interpret the present and perhaps change the future.