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SANDOW BIRK

November 8 - December 16, 2007 at CSU Long Beach, University Art Museum, Long Beach

by Shirle Gottlieb




Sandow Birk, "Invasion," 2007,
woodblock print on paper, 48 x 96".








Sandow Birk,
"Senate," 2007,
woodblock print on paper, 48 x 96".







Sandow Birk,
"Incursion," 2007,
woodblock print on paper, 48 x 96".







Sandow Birk,
"Repercussion," 2007,
woodblock print on paper, 48 x 96".







Sandow Birk,
"Repercussion," 2007,
woodblock print on paper, 48 x 96".

Artists have acted as society’s moral conscience since the dawn of civilization. And still the drumbeat rolls on.  As the age-old proverb warns: "Those who don't learn from history are destined to repeat it."

A trip to any major museum reveals a long trail of mankind's bloody footsteps.  Painting after painting, print after print depicts horrific ravages of war from Biblical day through World Wars I and II. While Picasso's "Guernica" may be emblematic of anti-war painting in the 20th-Century, the list of creative artists who risked their careers (not to mention their lives) to speak out against war is too numerous to mention. And not just visual artists, but playwrights and poets.  Think of Socrates and Dante; think of Ibsen, Lorca, Brecht and Beckett; think of Pinter and Stoppard. The list is endless.
 
A contemporary case in point is Sandow Birk, checking in with a sober and thought-provoking exhibit, "The Depravities of War.” Though a few of Birk's woodblock prints have been previously shown, this is the first time the complete series has been exhibited together.

Just as the work of Jacques Callot (a 17th-century printmaker who lived in France) influenced the work of 19th century Spanish master Francisco Goya, so, too, have Callot's prints inspired Birk. More specifically, it's Callot's "Miseries and Misfortunes of War" that caught Birk's attention. This suite of eighteen miniature etchings concerns the atrocities committed by marauding armies in Europe during the Thirty Year War (1618-1648).
 
With Callot's prints as his muse, Long Beach resident Birk undertook a series of monumental prints that would address the debauchery of warfare in our own time.  This absolutely-must-see exhibit consists of bold, colorful paintings and fifteen monumental, four-by-six foot woodcuts that are loaded with graphic detail.

A gargantuan achievement by any account, the entire project took two years to complete in collaboration with master printer Paul Mullowney from HuiPress in Hawaii. (Also assisting were select interns from the Rhode Island School of Design.)

After making small ink drawings on paper Birk took them to Kinko's, where they were greatly enlarged into four-by-eight-foot images.  These patterns were then transferred to the largest plywood Birk could find, and he started to work.

Through the use of traditional woodblock printing techniques on strong Japanese paper, the scenes in the "Depravities" series follow the course of a generic yet awfully familiar war from recruiting and training the troops, to death and destruction on both sides. Viewers bear witness to invasion and insurgent bombings, torture and abuse, guerilla warfare, violent uprisings, and wounded returning veterans--all of it ending in lost dreams and broken bodies.

Though the war is never named in the prints, the images are unmistakable: American flags, Arabic writing on mosque walls, 9/11 newspaper headlines, Senate hearings, and water torture.  With titles such as "Obsession," "Invasion," "Incursion," "Desecration," "Humiliation," and "Repercussion," there is no doubt you are viewing scenes of Iraq. The paintings, however, are a different story: one of them is called "Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld Presenting His Plan for the Invasion of Iraq, 2006"; another is named "The Liberation of Baghdad, 2006."

As a special treat, visitors to the museum can compare Birk's new 2007 series to Callot's 1633 prints (on loan from the UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts), are on view in an adjacent gallery. The side-by-side inspection afforded here reveals that Birk admires Callot tremendously and follows the cool, detached aesthetic of 17th century war prints. Compare Birk's "Obsession" to Callot's "The Recruitment of Troops."  Compare his "Destruction" to Callot's "Plundering and Burning a Village."  Compare "Desecration" to Callot's "Destruction of a Convent." But Birk’s personal feelings seep through as a powerful subtext, just as Goya's did in his stance against Napoleon’s invasion of Spain.

Many of the scenes are based on pictures snapped by war photographers embedded with the troops in Iraq.  Others come directly from television news footage and/or the Internet.  As such, Birk's contemporary wood-cut prints are a compilation of hundreds of real-life, news-media photographs presented in the form of traditional academic art.

Will the madness never stop or does another adage hold true? "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" (the more things change, the more they remain the same).


Jacques Callot, "Scene of Pillage"
from "Les Grandes Miseres de la
Guerre," 1633, woodblock print.
Collection, UCLA Grunewald
Center, Hammer Museum.




Jacques Callot, "The Hanging Tree,"
from "Les Grandes Miseres de la
Guerre," 1633, woodblock print.
Collection, UCLA Grunewald
Center, Hammer Museum.