‘Sandow Birk: American Qu’an’ Underwhelms at OCMA

Editor’s note: This is just one of a couple of our reviews of Birk’s show. 

A month ago, I had breakfast with a local artist who had seen “Sandow Birk: American Qur’an” at the Orange County Museum of Art. When I asked him his thoughts, his answer was short: It made him uncomfortable. When I pushed for details, he said he wasn’t interested in giving the work any real consideration “because of what it represented and all the negative stuff that was going on in the Middle East and stuff.” Taken aback, I called him on that bullshit, telling him it was lazy thinking for a citizen—even worse for an artist.

Now, after viewing the exhibition—more than 230 ink and gouache on paper pages of illuminated manuscript, a pair of paintings, and a couple of wood and ceramic sculptures Birk created with his wife, Elyse Pignolet—I just don’t see what the artist’s fuss was about. My friend’s refusal to engage with the work was just the kind of uninformed ignorance I’ve been seeing since 9/11.

Birk’s stated intent is to bring a better understanding of the Qur’an to an audience not initially receptive to it. While I’m not sure he has succeeded in that for the reasons stated below, his respect for the material and dedication—a decade researching and traveling, then nine years hand-transcribing from an English translation and painting—is something to be reckoned with. For the lettering, Birk’s stylized graffiti calligraphy will be familiar to anyone who has been to East LA or SanTana; he preserves traditional Qur’anic details such as black ink, medallions to show where the end of a verse is, palmette and fleur-de-lis decorations surrounding the manuscript and separating it from the formatted borders, and so on.

Of course, fundamentalists from both sides of the religious fence have issues: Christians don’t think the Qur’an should be considered a holy text, simply because it isn’t the Bible. Muslims have issues about calling it a Qur’an when it isn’t in Arabic, and there have been arguments against Birk’s illustrating each sura (chapter) with images of everyday life from across the 50 states. Conservative strains of Islam consider representations of human beings and animals in holy texts to be a form of idol worship.

If it’s to build a bridge between two cultures, that’s a respectable, even noble, intent, but I’m not so sure Birk’s execution is good enough to make that happen on any appreciable level. Aside from the ornamentation, the art is mostly mundane imagery: a winter cabin (American Qur’an—Sura 2 J), construction workers (American Qur’an—Sura 7 E), an abattoir (American Qur’an—Sura 3 D), a snowy funeral (American Qur’an—Sura 4 A), men shooting pool (American Qur’an Sura 5 E), a Chinese parade dragon (American Qur’an—Sura 2 K). It isn’t really illustrative or insightful and doesn’t always have a clear tie to the text. There are paintings that make their political points more obviously, such as a homeless war vet surrounded by people blissfully unaware of him, lost in their own business, attached to scriptures about charity (American Qur’an—Suras 107 and 108); images of orange-jump-suited prisoners at Guantanamo (American Qur’an—Sura 8 C); people wading through the dead bodies floating in waist-deep water in post-Katrina New Orleans (American Qur’an—Sura 37 C); or the prominent Mobil gas station sign attached to a sura titled “The Spoils of War” (American Qur’an—Sura 8 A). But provocation aside, it’s not all that exciting to look at. It’s a manuscript first and foremost, so the text takes precedence, with the remaining non-ornamental aspects resembling a form of low-level naive art compared to the artist’s earlier, more visually substantial work.

Further alienating the viewer, reading the first half-dozen illuminated suras on display was a fairly mind-numbing experience, much like reading any ancient sacred text when you’re not a believer. The anti-narrative, commands, injunctions and warnings of disaster occasionally make for a brief enlightenment (or at least a reiteration of things you already believe in), but if you have no religious skin in the game, why would you bother? Taking the time to read through the suras—as desperately boring as many of them can be—may open up many more of the painting’s secrets than I was able to comprehend in 90 minutes at the museum and several hours on Birk’s website. While I can’t say I walked away from the work appreciating anything more than Birk’s continuing devotion to art history, I now know more about the Qur’an than I did before I started. Pretty pictures or not, I can’t really ask for more than that.

“Sandow Birk: American Qur’an” at Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122; www.ocma.net. Open Wed.-Thurs. & Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fri., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Through Feb. 28. $7.50-$10; every Fri., free; children younger than 12, free.

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