Sandow Birk: Prisonation
Art Review: I was kickin’ it with Maus author and New Yorker comics editor Art Spiegelman the other day. “Sandow Birk be big,” Spiegelman told me, right after I gave him the beat down on Sega Madden 2000. “He sumo-ass big.”
Sandow Birk, “Prisonation”
Koplin Gallery, West Hollywood
Thru December 3, 2000
I was kickin’ it with Maus author and New Yorker comics editor Art Spiegelman the other day. “Sandow Birk be big,” Spiegelman told me, right after I gave him the beat down on Sega Madden 2000. “He sumo-ass big.”
“I feel ya,” I replied. “He as big as O.D.B.’s rap sheet.”
“Bigger,” Spiegeman said. “He as big as a Laird Hamilton-ridden wave.”
Okay, so that chat never occurred. I bring it up in the context of digging the faux history fictions that Long Beach, Calif. -based artist Birk is, among so many other things, known for. And after checking out Birk’s latest show, “Prisonation,” I’m more convinced than ever that Daniel Clowes-and Chris Ware-backer Spiegelman ought to make getting Birk a graphic novel book deal his absolute next priority.
Not that our man Birk needs any assistance, thank you. Supercurator Tyler Stallings just took down his Laguna Art Museum survey show of Birk’s fake war between Northern and Southern California (“Fog Town vs. Smog Town”). Birk’s past series -- each one more clever, conceptual and documentarian than the next -- included sets about a trip to Mexico and portraits of Brazilian street kids. Coming soon are said to be four canvases about the L.A.P.D.’s Rampart Division dirty cops scandal. The first work is already on display in an office at Koplin, and it features typically doughy, almost boneless characters that, even while not being entirely representational, capture the feel of contemporary city life better than any artist this side of, damn, maybe Honore Daumier? Check it: Birk’s that good, that wise, that socially aware, and when the mood strikes, that satirical.
Which brings us to “Prisonation,” the 24 works that Birk executed about California penetentaries. Most of the pokeys are in the deep background, serving as distant scenery, often hidden amidst buccolic Central and coastal California settings. Rows of crops and a tractor dominate a beutifully composed print of “California State Prison, Corcoran, Ca.” A desert scene with hills and cactus is the true focus of “Pleasant Valley State Prison, Coalinga, Ca.” Cows and bulls lounge and flowering shurbs bloom against barb wire in “Atascadero State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Atascadero, Ca.” The oil-on-canvas works are done in the California Plein Aire style that peaked in popularity about 75 years ago; but iconoclastic Birk has proved time and time again that he’s the anti-hack, and his works compare favorably with the older school plein aire works for sale at a trio of galleries around the corner. Of course, the Cali landscape has changed a bit since the days of Maynard Dixon et al., and Birk’s works include the occasional crushed beer can, Toyota 4-Runner, rusted shopping cart or hand-painted sign such as “White Local Jumbo Sweet Peaches Nectarines.”
Birk’s a pure storyteller, and whether he’s doing fact or fiction, he gets the feel right, the mood right, and the lesson right. In the prison series, he’s the subtlest of preachers; his S.F. v. L.A. martial stuff went for the over-the-top approach. The truth is, whatever choices Birk has made, they are always ideal. Next time we meet up, I’m gonna tell my homeboy Art Spiegelman that.
-- Jeremy Rosenberg