From Canvas to Screen

The unconventional route of Sandow Birks unconventional In Smog and Thunder

Backgrounds are anything but elegant salons. Present-day street life is marked by garish fast-food signs, rundown check-cashing stores, and such famous landmarks as the 405 freeway and the Capitol Records building in Hollywood.

Birk gives the same treatment to California's prisons, dirty cop Rafael Perez, and, most recently, an update of Dante's Divine Comedy with Los Angeles as the scene of heaven and hell. Of course, Birk wants to entertain, but he's also trying to get people to think.

"People know what I'm referring to, like the classical portrait of a guy on a horse. It's a traditional thing," says Birk, a 40-year-old with thoughtful reserve and an easygoing surfer's style. "So I can take that subject and add more stuff on it, like a gardener with a leaf blower for example. I can get people to think of what is the role of gardeners and leaf blowers in society and who we consider heroes and who aren't heroes."

The humor, the pop-culture references and the mere fact that he pays serious attention to immigrant gardeners (and others relegated to the peripheries of society) make him a unique artist in the view of Louie Pérez, guitarist for Chicano roots-rock band Los Lobos. Pérez commissioned Birk to paint cover art of a Chicano neighborhood for Los Lobos' 2002 album, Good Morning, Aztlan. Perhaps it was a little risky for a Mexican-American band to hire an Anglo artist to depict a Chicano scene, but Pérez thought Birk had something few others possess.

"I remember looking at one of his paintings of peasants going to battle—one of those peasants was wearing a 'VivaSelena' shirt," Pérez said. "I thought, 'Birk is really paying attention.' His paintings put a smile on your face, and they tell you something. He really captured California's multicultural state."

If Birk is one of the few who gets California's new culture and politics, his treatment of these subjects puts him in a unique position for a painter. He has been interviewed on public-affairs shows such as radio station KCRW's Which Way LA and public-television station KCET's Life & Times on such hot potatoes as the proposed San Fernando Valley succession and prison reform. Men's fashion magazine GQhad Birk modeling hip clothes in front of one of his Prison Nation paintings in 2001.

Laguna Art Museum director Bolton Colburn assigns Birk to a new Southern California art movement that includes celebrated artists Mike Kelley and Ed Ruscha.

"A lot of artists growing up in Southern California realized their vernacular didn't have to be modernist or postmodernist," Colburn said. "They could use pop culture for how they engage high art. It's about trying to engage a larger audience. Artists like Sandow are much more interested in bringing their art to people than having a conversation about it at a college."

* * *

Birk's jarring use of old art to create a new conversation began when he was dissatisfied with new painting as a student at the Otis Parsons Institute in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s.

"Everything in LA was movies, TV and music," Birk said. "Painting really seemed sort of pathetic and anachronistic. So I did a semester in Paris and another in London, and I remember being bowled over by the paintings in Europe. The enormous French paintings were fantastic. It was great learning about the celebrity status of these artists and the big reactions they received when they exhibited their paintings at the salons. It was the equivalent of moviemaking in the 1800s.

"I was nostalgic for this time when painting could matter and when everyone would flock to see paintings. And I was sad I didn't live in those times. So I started to emulate that formula, that grandiosity, that romanticism."

With movies—or, at least, increasing the audience for his paintings—in the back of his mind, Birk wrote an In Smog and Thunder mockumentary script after the museum tour ended in 2000. Zaloom, a performance artist and friend, rewrote that script, specifically packing in a lot more jokes. Then . . . almost nothing went right.

"I think the problem with Paul and I is that we didn't know how to make a movie," Birk said. "We didn't even have a camera."

There were no takers for their script. They discussed making it themselves, but filmmaking classes they considered taking were canceled. A DVD company that produced a three-minute trailer for the project seemed to be the pair's savior—until the company went out of business.

Birk and Zaloom were close to dumping the project when they made a last-ditch attempt to revive it by enlisting the help of Greg Escalante, a Sunset Beach-based art impresario who helped produce the influential Kustom Kar art show at Laguna Art Museum in 1993 and a velvet painting exhibition at Huntington Beach Art Center in 1999. But the very idea of In Smog and Thunder made Escalante nervous. "When people hear the words 'documentary' and 'artist,' they run the other way," he said. "There is no upside to it."

But Escalante promised he'd help anyway, contacting one of the only guys in the world he knew with roots in art and comedy: Tom Patchett, the executive producer of the TV sitcom Alfand owner of Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica. The first cold call was a belly flop. Patchett's assistant said he wasn't funding anything. Patchett agreed to meet them, however, and the meeting felt like he was just doing them a favor.

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