City Beat Long Beach Feature Story By Theo Douglas
“I wanted to live near the beach, but I didn’t really know where I wanted to live,” artist Sandow Birk says over sandwiches and a glass of Chardonnay at George’s Greek Café. “So I ended up in Long Beach.”
Of course, that’s more than faint praise.
“I always saw Long Beach as sort of—to me, it’s like I still live in L.A.,” says Birk, a Seal Beach native who rented in Los Angeles, but found it too pricey to own. “Well, I mean, ’cause everything I do is in L.A. I go to dinner in L.A., and all my gallery business is in L.A., and you go to see shows, and to me Long Beach is just halfway between the beach and the city.”
He likes it that way. And regardless of how you see this city—as bustling port, aerospace survivor or ex-oil titan; quiet bedroom community, ocean-front playground or historic resort town or just a bedroom community—it seems an apt choice for Birk, an artist whose multimedia work, steeped in the classics, finds its subjects in how we live now.
“I LIKE THAT IT’S A CITY”
“I think Long Beach is—I like that it has its own style and character. I like that it’s a city instead of a suburb,” Birk says. Big cities inform much of his visual landscape; and, in fact, Long Beach has guest-starred in at least two Birk paintings: one, a painting depicting The Nugget bar on West Anaheim Street; the other, a street scene from his series based on Dante’s Divine Comedy—and starring a classic Long Beach dingbat apartment building.
“I guess, to oversimplify, I just try to make artworks about things that I’m thinking about,” says Birk, a lifelong surfer who was born in 1962. “I did a lot of, you know, the surfing stuff, right when I got out of school, and it was sort of a way for me to do artworks on something that I knew about. But I think, you know, there has been, as I’ve gotten older, there’s been a conscious sort of expanding ring of topics. I used to do things about surfing, and then it was about my city, and then it was about California, prisons. Then it was about the United States with the Dante project, and now it’s about international things.”
Upon earning his Bachelor’s in Fine Arts from Otis Art Institute in 1988, Birk began broadening his horizons, expanding his focus from Los Angeles life—everything from bar scenes to drive-by shootings, some on black velvet, no less—to farther-ranging topics, examining California in two series which gave more than a nod to artists who came before him.
NORTH VS. SOUTH
His “In Smog and Thunder: The Great War of the Californias,” from 2000, is still cited for vividly—and humorously—imagining what would happen if the historical disdain Northern and Southern Californians have for each other ever came to . . . well, you know, war.
“The Great War rolled up an unlikely mixture of personalities, decisions, and actions into the giant burrito of history,” Birk wrote in his introduction to a 2002 book collecting works from the project, adding, tongue-in-cheek: “The works in this exhibition represent only a portion of the vast record left by artists of the period.”
“In the California civil war series, I thought in [Birk’s] works, one of the pieces that really stood out—I don’t know the title—was the one of the guy on the Ninja motorcycle,” says local freelance art curator John Geldbach, a former gallery owner who has shown work by Sandow and his wife Elyse Pignolet, who is herself an artist and a frequent collaborator with her husband.
“It so reminded me of those portraits painted of Napoleon conquering another nation and expanding his empire,” Geldbach says (he’s most likely referring to the richly-hued Portrait of Lt. Quincy Salerno, although Salerno rides a Ducati).
The former owner of DDR Projects in Belmont Heights first hosted Birk at his gallery in 2008, for a book-signing of his book based on the Iraq war woodcut series “The Depravities of War.”
“For the longest time as far as working with him, I always felt he was unattainable, but I took a page out of my own book and . . . I’d never been hit in the face for asking,” Geldbach says, adding that he found Birk supremely approachable and courteous.
“You clearly can approach him,” Geldbach says. “Everybody has a sort of finite time in any sort of industry, and clearly the art world is an industry, and I think probably he is willing to take chances, and why not? Why not do this? Why not take chances? Why not expose myself somewhere else?”
Two years later, Birk—whose media vary from oil paints to woodcuts to . . . trash found on the beach—completed another California series, “Prisonation,” a group of landscape prints and paintings. Inspired by 19th century paintings of the American West, where “Smog and Thunder” had parodied the early artist-explorers, “Prisonation” depicted California’s 33 state prisons in gorgeous style and color, while omitting none of their dreadful dystopian sprawl.
“There’s a whole lot of social commentary in his work,” Geldbach says. “And he gives great thought and weight to what he’s going after. He’s relevant and he’s an artist who will continue to be relevant 20, 30, 40 years down the road.”
EXPLORING THE TRADITIONAL
The owners of Koplin Del Rio Gallery in Los Angeles, one of the galleries that represent Birk, agree. They praise the artist for his appreciation of the classics, and for his willingness to take risks, as evidenced most recently by his “American Qur’an,” an ongoing hand-transcription of the Qur’an—the entire Qur’an—according to historic Islamic traditions, illustrated with scenes from contemporary American life.
“I have to tell you that we were very pleasantly surprised,” says Sugar Brown, a partner in the gallery, which first showed portions of “Qu’ran” in Fall 2009. (A new exhibition of excerpts from the series opened this past September in New York.) “We went into it knowing that there was a potential for certain people to possibly be offended by it, even though that was not where Sandow was coming from and his intent were good.”
In fact, “Qu’ran” makes that clear, in a series of beautifully-rendered pages whose typography derives in part from modern-day graffiti but whose words hew faithfully to the Qu’ran. Its accompanying illustrations are, perhaps, its most obvious link to modern times. One panel finished this year (the project won’t be completed until 2012) depicts Katrina victims and survivors, still adrift and waiting to be rescued, amid blocks of painstakingly-inscribed prose laid over the scene. Another depicts a modern airport with passengers milling about as they wait to board jets.
“Most Americans don’t have a clue what it is. I didn’t,” Birk says of his interest in the Qur’an, which was piqued by periodic trips to surf spots in Islamic nations—and by America’s post-9/11 struggle to come to terms with Islam. “So I just bought a paperback copy of the Qur’an and started reading it, and I was, like, ‘Well, this isn’t anything like I expected it to be. This is remarkably familiar.’”
Almost as familiar, perhaps, as Birk himself may one day become; his works were featured in—or comprised—a total of six exhibitions, from Long Beach to Torrance, to New Jersey and the Netherlands, which opened this past summer.
“Uh, no,” Birk says with a laugh, when asked if this was planned. “It just sort of happened that way. It’s just sort of been rolling along.”
Out in the Open
Even if Sandow Birk isn’t a household name to you, you’ve likely seen his stuff around town. Go to the shopping center on 5th Street (between Long Beach Boulevard and Pine), look up and you’ll see Birk’s hand-painted mural (done in collaboration with Thomas Barter and Elyse Pignolet) on hand-made tiles, The Founding of the City of Long Beach