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Sandow Birk
Painting; printmaking
(Detroit, Michigan, 1962 - )

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Born in Detroit, Michigan, Long Beach-based Sandow Birk attended American College in Paris, Parson’s School of Design in Paris, France, and Bath Academy of Art in Bath, England before earning his BFA at Otis Art Institute in 1988. Birk has exhibited widely in both group and solo exhibitions. He has shown at Koplin Gallery, Catherine Clarke Gallery, Laguna Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and at the San Jose Museum of Art. His work is included in the collections of several notable institutions including Laguna Art Museum, di Rosa Preserve, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and San Jose Museum of Art. His painting A Partial View of the City of Rio de Janeiro (1997) was featured in the exhibition Carioca: A Year Among the Natives of Rio de Janiero at SJMA in 2000. The painting is currently on view in Collection Highlights. San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, CA would be the second work to enter SJMA’s permanent collection. (SJMA Collections Committee, 2003)

Since he began painting more than a decade ago, Sandow Birk has cleverly updated hundreds of historical artworks using a dramatic style of narrative realism. He also joins a long line of American painters who have depicted the nation’s sublime landscape since the 19th century.1 What makes Birk’s work unique, however, is his scathing satire of established artistic and social conventions, and his willingness to offer poignant commentary on contemporary sociopolitical issues.

A native of Southern California, Birk earned his M.F.A. in 1988 from the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles. He achieved critical acclaim for his early series In Smog and Thunder: The Great War of the Californias, about an imaginary war between Northern and Southern California, and Prisonation, which sardonically depicted California state prisons nestled in bucolic settings. In 2000, Birk began work on an epic series of paintings and illustrations based on his own contemporary translation of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century literary masterpiece The Divine Comedy.2

Birk’s version of the mythic tale is more than a straightforward rendering. The adventure, which takes Virgil and Dante on a journey through various modern American cities, begins in the Inferno and unfolds over a series of drawings that Birk based on Gustave Doré’s 19th-century illustrations of the Comedy. In Birk’s present-day Hell, police helicopters descend upon war-torn cities, and gas-guzzling SUVs emerge from the dark depths of a secret cavern beneath L.A.’s downtown. The series is capped by Birk’s apocalyptic panorama of the Inferno—an imaginary urban landscape that burns red in a fiery haze with smoke rising from a distant volcano to obscure a rising sun. American painter Frederic Edwin Church painted a similar volcanic landscape, Cotopaxi (1862), after returning home from a visit to South America, only to find the United States on the verge of Civil War.

Surrounded by the desecrated remains of American icons—including San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Los Angeles freeway system, Mount Rushmore, and New York’s Twin Towers—Dante and Virgil are perched on a cliff overlooking an Inferno of biblical proportions. The two men appear dwarfed and helpless as they contemplate their fate before a vast and inhospitable landscape. This vision of the apocalypse surely matches the definition of the sublime proposed by British theorist Edmund Burke in 1757: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger … or operates in a manner analogous to terror,” he said, “is a source of the sublime.”3

The mythical destruction portrayed in Birk’s painting may suggest a grim future for America, but such disasters—both real and imagined—are not unfamiliar to many Californians. Following the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, a vivid account titled The San Francisco Disaster and Mount Vesuvius Horror: Death and Ruin by Eruption, Earthquake and Fire linked the two (unrelated) natural catastrophes, and set the tone for future apocalyptic commentaries.4 More recently, cultural historian Mike Davis has written that Los Angeles is a magnet for the apocalyptic imagination, and that “what is most distinctive about L.A. is not simply its conjugations of earthquakes, wildfires and floods, but its uniquely explosive mixture of natural hazards and social contradictions.”5 In Birk’s fictional Inferno, an imaginary volcano spews a river of lava onto clogged highways that are cluttered with fast food emblems, corporate logos, oil derricks, and electric power lines. It is not surprising that the scene resembles the 1999 film Volcano, in which a reckless construction crew triggers a volcanic eruption in metropolitan Los Angeles.

While Birk’s monumental Inferno seems to predict the demise of our nation’s great urban cities, it is also cautions viewers to reconsider the impact of unchecked economic progress and rampant globalization. Like his 19th-century predecessor Church, who painted Cotopaxi on the eve of war, Birk’s sublime landscape offers an apocalyptic portent of the violence that may someday engulf America. —A.W.

1. See Andrew Wilton and Tim Barringer, American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820–1880 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002).
2. Birk undertook the literary translation with the assistance of freelance writer Marcus Sanders.
3. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1759; reprint, New York: Garland Publishing, 1971), 58.
4. Charles Eugene Banks and Opie Read, The San Francisco Disaster and Mount Vesuvius Horror: Death and Ruin by Eruption, Earthquake and Fire (Chicago: C. E. Thomas, 1906).
5. Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Mike Davis and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998), 54–55. (SJMA Selections publication, 2004)

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