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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
All that, and a feature film, too: it will star James Cromwell(Famer Hoggett from Babe) as Virgil. Birk will win the jury prize at all his festivals and be richer and more famous than he is now. The MacArthur genius folks will get his number and give him a jingle. And the envy will seep from our pores like fat on an Atkins dieter.
Go ahead. Go see his show. You won’t be happy for him, not even a little.
A version of this story originally ran in the Feb. 15, 2006 OC Weekly. MTW