Photo by Jack GoldIf every last one of San Francisco's pretentious yuppie assholes got wiped out by E. coli-tainted arugula, you wouldn't see me tearing my hair out in anguish. I hate that fucking place. And as far as I can tell, the schmucks up there return the favor, probably with very good reason.
So let's have a war, huh? And a war in the hands of LBC surfer/ painter/Fulbright fellow/all-around good guy Sandow Birk is the bloodiest, most satisfying kind of war, overflowing like a stopped-up toilet with product placement and gnarly big explosions and noble, multiculti heroes gazing out in perfect stillness at the smoldering horizon.
At the opening of "In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works From the Great War of the Californias," you could smell the envy—it smelled kind of like skunkweed, as a matter of fact—escaping from other artists' pores. I know of at least two who have vowed never to set paintbrush to canvas again. What would be the use?
I know what they mean. To go with his big fake canvases "by unschooled artists of the period" and his models of ships exploding, Birk has written a history. And it is so funny, clever and slyly insightful that anything I could write about it would be a pale, derivative hack job. Birk has already provided the criticism anyhow, incorporating into his didactic wall texts 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." He's got the sneer down, hasn't he?
"In Smog and Thunder" is 36-year-old Birk's second solo show at the Laguna Art Museum. More than 80 works are 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 commemorates the deeds of such heroes as Captain Chun Yeong Chang's tireless battalion of 11-year-old computer programmers and recounts 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 is the battle for Nob Hill—"sparsely defended by a tenacious band of lesbians and Hispanic maids, whom the Southerners overran after a fierce struggle."
The history of the war includes both personal accounts—a bitter General Gomez cedes the Valley to the Northern invaders, sneering, "Let the bastards burn"; hemp farmers in Big Sur mistake the invading Southerners for DEA agents—and all kinds of "flankings" and "strategic maneuvers" and "maritime assaults" and other boy things like that. It's hilarious, and it needed none of the punching up performance artist Paul Zaloom gave it for the audio tour. (For instance, he changed a reference to a lieutenant commander for the South—in Birk's history, just a bit actress on a failed soap—to a poke at Vanna White. Trs 1987!)
So the idea is genius. But it's Birk's paintings, agelessly postmodern, that are stunning and gorgeous even in their Catch-22 absurdity. Los Angeles Triumphant features the city personified in a teenage Latina, her jeans unbuttoned over her belly huge with child, holding an Oscar and a skateboard; an ABC News camera and a soccer ball lie at her feet while overhead, two cherubim drop a Mickey Mouse hat onto her head.
Allegory of the Great War of the Californias, based on David's The Intervention of the Sabine Women, shows a smoke-filled Sunset Boulevard superimposed on San Francisco's bridges. Straddling our freeways, women bearing sashes reading "Santa Cruz" and "Santa Barbara" (and Irvine; Orange County remained neutral in the contest and then was—sadly—overrun by Mexicans after Tijuana came to LA's aid and, in gratitude, California's southern border was abolished) lament the bloodshed, standing impotently between a Northerner wielding a redwood like a lance and a Southerner with a steering wheel for a shield. 7-Eleven and Taco Bell signs stand proud amid the carnage, as they do in just about every painting, along with Big Gulp cups, "Pass or Don't Pay" flags and Nike logos. In The Spirit of Los Angeles (based on Archibald McNeal Willard's Spirit of '76, naturally), a man dying on the battlefield holds a spork aloft as troops march over him with convenience-store eats in their hands. American Express: don't go to war without it.
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And it's the Gallery of Heroes series that shows what our state should be, although "citizen" Barbara Coe would have herself a coronary. There's nary a white man in the bunch, as General Felix Hernandez, a former gardener, stands atop the Sepulveda Pass, a leaf blower and rake in his arms, a laptop and binocs at his feet. Lieutenant Commander Rebecca Jordan stands astride a motorcycle—she could kill you, and she's pretty! Lieutenant Major DJ Down is a black man with a pink-plumed buccaneer's hat, running people down on a CHP bike (and looking good while doing so) while the Getty Center burns behind him.
Let the bastards burn. Wait! That's us.
I'm waiting for the screenplay.
"In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works From the Great War of the Californias," Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $4-$5. Through July 9.