Sandow Birk Goes to Hell

Divine Comedy may have started with Dante, but Birks made the circles of heaven and hell his own

Sandow Birk’s name gets dropped a lot in Southern California. People want to be around one of those guys for whom everything seems to come easy: his Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships; his jet-setting to Rio, Morocco and Paris; his girlfriend who actually looks like Salma Hayek, but with more delicate features, which is wrong in so many ways.

He’s boyish, he’s handsome (the drag queens in Silver Lake call him "Mandow," with their patented drag queen purr), and he’s a bloody genius. When he gets a MacArthur genius grant—and you know it’s coming—I will not be happy for him, not even at all.

You can smell the envy at one of Birk’s exhibit openings. It smells of sulphur.

Artwork by Sandow Birk
Artwork by Sandow Birk
Artwork by Sandow Birk
Artwork by Sandow Birk

“In Smog and Thunder: The Great War of the Californias,” which opened in 2000, was the then-36-year-old Birk’s second solo show at the Laguna Art Museum. More than 80 works were crammed in, including inspirational posters begging Angelenos to unite and soliciting war bonds and “Porno Wanted for Our Men in Camp,” while Birk’s text commemorated the deeds of such heroes as Captain Chun Yeong Chang’s tireless battalion of 11-year-old computer programmers and recounted such trenchant details as the gas stations along Interstate 5 running out of beer and Fritos during the South’s drive on San Fran, while the cash machines ran out of twenties. Then there was the battle for Nob Hill—“sparsely defended by a tenacious band of lesbians and Hispanic maids, whom the Southerners overran after a fierce struggle.” To go with his big fake canvases “by unschooled artists of the period” and his models of ships exploding, Birk wrote a history, even providing the art criticism: incorporated into his didactic wall texts were such analyses as this one for Rendezvous at Twin Peaks: “Seemingly added as an afterthought, the clumsy and stunted characters in this stiffly academic painting have been likened to cardboard cutouts. . . . Despite the painting’s flaws, it is interesting to note the unusual depiction of a supply-line taco truck, representing a reality of warfare rarely depicted in more heroic images.”

The history of the war included both personal accounts—a bitter General Gomez ceded the Valley to the Northern invaders, sneering, “Let the bastards burn”; hemp farmers in Big Sur mistook the invading Southerners for DEA agents—and all kinds of “flankings” and “strategic maneuvers” and “maritime assaults” and other boy things like that. Two artists I knew vowed never to set brush to canvas again.

But for a while after, Birk struggled for a proper second act. Local artists were quietly gleeful when his very beautiful “Prisonation” series—PoMo appropriations of Hudson River School painters, with verdant landscapes containing all the state’s prisons, unthreatening in the distance—didn’t get much traction. Although his painting—which had been sort of clumsy and flat—had improved in skill and technique, the series was subtle and would never be the blockbuster “In Smog and Thunder” had been. It was seen as desperately latching onto a theme—any theme—without being willing to go on the line with any true feeling or statement. It also lacked the layer upon layer of imaginative detail with which “In Smog and Thunder” had depressed so many.

Then came “Dante’s Inferno,” a project for which his buddy Marcus Sanders adapted the Italian text into surf-speak and for which Birk provided dozens of small, black-and-white illustrations based on the etchings of Gustave Dore. While his Post-Modern appropriations of earlier artists were back in force, along with his fascination with the consumer detritus of 7-Elevens and strip malls, the work was a little bit boring and still not as imaginative as “In Smog and Thunder.” That, after all, had come wholly from his own beautiful mind, like Athena sprung from Zeus, and didn’t require an earlier source to make his story for him.

His fellows were pleased.

But now the teeth-gnashing and hair-tearing have begun again—and with even more reason.

I’m sorry to report that the elements of everything Birk has done up to now have coalesced into an even finer project. His painting is better and more full-bodied. His alternate universe is just as imaginative and with just as much sly detail. “Sandow Birk’s Divine Comedy” may have started with Dante, but Birk’s made the circles of heaven and hell his own.

Organized by the San Jose Museum of Art, “Divine Comedy” is split between Cal State Fullerton’s Main Gallery and its Santa Ana satellite, the Grand Central Art Center.

Large canvases explode like magma, huge, detailed depictions of the cityscapes—always cityscapes—that are stand-ins for paradise, purgatory and the inferno. There is no bucolic, pastoral heaven here; instead, it’s John Winthrop’s shining city on a hill. Heaven is impacted with traffic, and the multitudes of souls on their escalators and wandering through a Hong Kong-like neonorama make you feel infinitesimally small and soulless yourself. It’s even still kind of grimy.

The Hollywood sign reads “Purgatorio,” and you look from behind it down into a chasm of flame and liquor stores, with Virgil by your side. The Minotaur Lamb Shack offers shawarma. Those big canvases, bloody with color and appropriated from images by Brueghels and others, enslave your interest so that you are willing to make the effort of going around each of the small etching-like drawings, with their thick black-and-white hatch marks, that made up Birk’s original tomes. (Purgatorio, Paradiso and Inferno each came in a separate large edition.)

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