Sandow Birk: Depravities & Monuments at SDSU Downtown Gallery
By Richard Gleaves
A major trend in academic research these days is translational science, so named for its specific goal of translating knowledge obtained from basic science into applications which directly benefit society. The medical researcher Marek Dominiczak, in describing the Bauhaus to fellow scientists as a possible model for pursuing translational science, coined the derivative term translational art. It’s this term which provides a useful foundation for understanding the work of Sandow Birk, whose show Depravities & Monuments recently closed at the San Diego State University Downtown Gallery.
The show consisted of excerpts from two series by Birk: The Depravities of War and Imaginary Monuments. Depravities has been on the exhibition circuit for the past ten years, while Monuments is relatively new, having been shown first in 2015 at Catherine Clark Gallery.
The media involved are drawing, etching, and woodcut prints. And the handling of these media is throughly competent, but not much more. Normally such a state of affairs would be considered problematic, given a) Baldessari’s dictum that talent is cheap, and b) the classic trope of excellence as technical mastery in a wholly original style. But in Birk’s case the pedestrian style is an essential component of his overall program, which turns out to be fairly complex and thoroughly interesting.
A Birk production depends on a number of interlocking components which collectively add value to the base set of paintings, prints, and drawings:
– Socially relevant content
– Grand narrative
– Pop title
– Labor intensive
– Compelling backstory
– Artist persona
– Educational value
– Media critique
The socially relevant content renders the historical art forms more accessible to a pop-tropic target audience, while preserving those forms’ fundamental exoticism for the benefit of same.
The use of grand narrative leverages the audience’s understanding of the conventions of pop cinema, providing another affordance of accessibility into the work. And as a formal move it has provided Birk with a secure niche in the art world, positioning him alongside other artists (Alexis Smith, Raymond Pettibon) who have built their practice on narrative, though in hard-bitten minimalism rather than Birk’s epic tales.
The carefully-devised project titles provide yet another affordance of accessibility by closely conforming to the conventions of popular cinema and literature:
– American Qur’an (American Beauty; American Psycho; American Gigolo)
– Prisonation (Prozac Nation; Alien Nation; Fast Food Nation)
– Smog and Thunder – Historical Works from The War of the Californias (<poetic phrase>:<descriptive subtitle>, a title schema endemic in Pulitzer Prize nonfiction winners)
Perhaps key to Birk’s entire program are the ever-present signs of laborious effort. The medium is always analog, even if digital technology gets deployed behind the scenes in its making (e.g., Xerox enlargement in the case of Depravities). This sense of facture facture facture, combined with the large object count dictated by a grand narrative, demands from viewers a reading of Herculean labors rendered. And this in turn gets reinforced by the backstory, which inevitably notes the number of years that went into the project.
As noted before, Birk’s practice focuses not on technical brilliance or original style, but rather on the presentation of ideas; in particular, on the mapping of contemporary content into historical forms. Because such mappings are the core of the work’s creative value (as opposed to its labor value, which is visually apparent), a compelling backstory becomes a necessary component for explaining the mappings, especially for a pop-tropic target audience.
A typical Birk backstory involves the artist first conceiving a direct mapping between some current social issue and some distant historical artwork, and from this devising an original narrative to realize the mapping. While these backstories imply artistic genius as the root of such conceptions, it’s worth noting that artistic precedents exist for most of Birk’s mappings:
– Preceding Smog and Thunder was the decades-long simulated literary feud between San Francisco and Los Angeles, as conducted by the writers Herb Caen (“Baghdad by the Bay”) and Jack Smith (“God and Mr. Gomez”). Not to mention the science-fiction disaster novel “Lucifer’s Hammer” (by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle), which presents a culturally-diverse cast of thousands doing battle in the California landscape. (As a bonus, the novel throws in a slam-bang sci-fi surfing scene.)
– Preceding Birk’s Divine Comedy was the fantasy novel “Inferno” (again by Niven and Pournelle), which presents hell as “Infernoland”, a high-tech amusement park populated by figures such as Mussolini, L. Ron Hubbard, and Al Capone.
– Preceding Imaginary Monuments is the work of longtime New Yorker illustrator Bruce McCall. Period.
Birk’s self-presentation as an artist includes a strong emphasis on his being a surfer. This turns out to have specific value to his program, above and beyond the usual stratagems of artistic self-identity:
– It excuses him from any obligation to pursue the levels of technical expertise achieved by the Old Masters he references – such madness can be left to the Odd Nerdrums of the world. If any art critic were to accuse Birk of being a hack, he can simply play the surfer card and inform the critic that they’re missing the point (which would be true).
– It provides yet another affordance of accessibility to his pop-tropic target audience, by reminding them that while historical art might well be uncool, the fact that in this case it’s being done by a surfer more than compensates in coolness.
Birk’s program is educationally invaluable in how it welds pop accessibility to historical art forms. This property seems to have been fully recognized; in one of the curatorial essays in the book for Depravities, the explanation of Birk’s mappings is used as a launch point for explaining the historical art being mapped. For this reason it’s easy to imagine the Depravities show continuing to travel indefinitely, regularly visiting every college gallery in the country. It’s that valuable as an instructional tool.
Finally, whether intentional or not, Birk is now doing something far more profound than teaching art history or promoting social causes. It’s common knowledge that part of the modernist legacy was the displacement of the artist’s eye by the camera lens, as the preferred tool for recording world events. But only recently has the world realized that the rise of digital imaging has led to endless floods of bits, and what’s worse, to the ever-increasing ease of making ever more larger floods.
The effect of all this has been to devalue the very content that those endless floods depict. So what better way to remember the things that matter than depict them in analog, as narrative, at grand scale, and in all their slow, laborious detail?
The exhibition closed January 29th, 2017.