Drawing inspiration from the ever-present rivalry between the two major cities of California and from contemporary political events, Sandow Birk’s In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works from the Great War of the Californias was a detailed portrayal of a fictional war between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Thick with parody, satire, and astute social commentary, Birk appropriated iconic compositions and painting styles from the past to make commentaries on contemporary life and events of California’s history. The artist examined politics and art history in a Hollywood-style war of epic proportions, depicting first the invasion of San Francisco by L.A.’s “Smog Town” troops, to San Francisco’s belated counter attack by sea that captures the megalopolis unawares and culminates in a powerful confrontation in the streets of the southern California city. The exhibition was complete with elaborate “history” paintings, propaganda posters, topographical maps, ship models, portraits of key military figures, and extensive pseudo-historical observation.
Birk’s art explores contemporary California issues, interpreting events such as the San Fernando Valley’s secession and debate about leaf-blowers, Mono Lake water rights, etc. Generals lead their troops riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and the Goodyear blimp hovers over the landscape of freeway cloverleaf interchanges.
A full-color catalogue—along with a special audio tour guide that plays with the authority of the museum as a vault of history and continues Birk’s own fabricated history—accompanied the exhibition.
Raised on the beaches of Orange County and currently living and working in Los Angeles, Sandow Birk is a product of California culture. Well-traveled and a graduate of the Otis/Parson’s Art Institute, Sandow deals with Los Angeles in its entirety through his work. With an emphasis on social issues, frequent themes of his past work have included daily life in L.A.’s barrios, inner city violence, graffiti, various political issues, surfing, and skateboarding. His work has been shown extensively throughout the U.S. including the solo exhibition Carioca, which ran at Laguna Art Museum in 1997 and traveled to the San Jose Museum of Art in 1999, and work in It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll at the Phoenix Art Museum.
Sandow Birk is a recipient of an NEA International Travel Grant to Mexico City in 1995, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996, and a Fulbright Research Scholarship to Rio de Janeiro for 1997. In 1999 he was awarded a Getty Fellowship for painting. Sandow is represented by the Koplin Gallery in Los Angeles, the Catherine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, and the Earl McGrath Gallery in New York City.
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