May 2012 by SHANA NYS DAMBROT , Los Angeles
“New Suras” is the second installment of three in painter Sandow
Birk’s ambitious project, American Qur’an. Although a continuation of
the same body of work, in this middle part his comfort level with the
material and confidence in its rendering have noticeably increased.
Birk’s precisely rendered, filigree-bordered panels are more than
merely a modernized illustration of this major text, of which little is
really understood in the West, but neither is he attempting a serious
reinterpretation of its meaning. Rather, by empathetically transposing
the allegorical underpinnings of the scripture to contemporary secular
scenarios, he actually increases their relevance and accessibility.
In a way, this is what Birk always does—he makes lesser-known
aspects and episodes of history exciting and relevant. From the
California statehood conflicts to the Stonewall protests and surfercentric
environmentalism, he’s adept at re-contextualizing and he takes
it all very seriously.
But Birk is Birk, so humor is never far from the scene, and in the Qur’an
panels, there’s a game to figuring out what phrase in the text has
inspired the picture, prompting the viewer to read more closely. In Sura
71, four tattooed, urban teenagers (two boys, two girls) pose around a
police car, hands spread on the hood. A factory looms in the background,
oppressed by a sickly, dirty-gold sky like old stucco. A helicopter
hovers in its own niche bent out of the border. The story is from Noah
and talks about warnings, punishments, wickedness, and the
contrivance of a great deception. In Sura 75, a hospital operating room
is in use, a team of doctors surrounding a patient. The text addresses
resurrection, reassembly of bones, and reviving the dead. It’s not quite
laugh out loud funny, but its wry wit supports the intrigue of the texts.
Birk shows a certain adherence to formal traditions, but persistent
ideas about even printed Qur’ans being the literal word of God render
what he did here both devotional and heretical. Practicing the ancient
art of transcription and manuscript illumination he becomes a kind of
secular monk, infinitely patient, disciplined, attentive. Notably, these
works are nowhere near as political as one might think—or rather, not
in the way one might think. Because in today’s America, this particular
empathy is itself a political action.
Sandow Birk: “American Qur’an: New Suras” at Koplin Del Rio Gallery