Best known for his several series of works on a theme, Sandow Birk has created paintings, drawings, lithographs, woodcuts, sculptures and murals of ceramic tile that explore contemporary American life. Born in Detroit in 1962, his family moved to Seal Beach in Orange County, Calif. when he was five years old. While growing up his main interests were surfing and drawing; in high school he painted surfboards. In 1981 he enrolled in the Otis Art Institute of Parson’s School of Design in Los Angeles. In 1984 Birk traveled to Europe to study at the Parson’s School of Design branch in Paris, then transferred to the Bath Academy of Art in England the following year. He then spent two years in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he surfed and painted surfboards. Back in Los Angeles, he completed his course work at the Otis Art Institute and was awarded a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1988. Birk worked as an installer for art galleries, worked in a bakery and painted versions of 19th century French “salon” paintings populated with the denizens of the impoverished Crenshaw neighborhood where he lived. Earl McGrath gave Birk his first exhibition at McGrath’s Los Angeles gallery in 1989. Inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles riots to be a history painter documenting contemporary Los Angeles, Birk’s series of “Urban Works” were in great demand and appeared on covers of national magazines. A series of five paintings from 1995 depict “The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles,” imagined views inspired by the Thomas Cole (1801-1848) series “The Course of Empire.” Birk won several grants and fellowships, beginning with a Western States Art Federation/National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant (1994), an NEA exchange scholarship to Mexico City (1995), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1995), a Fulbright scholarship to Rio de Janeiro (1997), the Basil H. Alkazzi Award (1998), a Getty Fellowship (1999), a City of Los Angeles Fellowship (2001) and a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (2007). His set of over 100 paintings, drawings and works in other media depicting an imaginary war between Los Angeles and San Francisco, “In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works from the Great War of the Californias,” was first exhibited at the Laguna Art Museum in 2000 and published as a book in 2002. Birk’s “Dante’s Inferno,” the Divine Comedy translated by Marcus Sanders into contemporary vernacular and illustrated by Birk’s 60 lithographs depicting Hell as a crumbling urban America, was published in 2004 and turned into a movie in 2007. For “The Depravities of War,” inspired by Jacques Callot’s (1592-1635) “The Miseries of War” and Francisco de Goya’s (1746-1828) “The Disasters of War” and suggested by Birk’s wife the artist Elyse Pignolet, he created fifteen large woodcuts first shown at the Catherine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, in 2007 and published as a book that year. Birk and Pignolet have received commissions for several public murals, including ceramic tile murals for the SFJazz Center (2013) and the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollenbeck Police Station in the Boyle Heights section of the city (2009). Extensive travel to Muslim countries and a desire to understand Islam better led him to adapt a 19th century translation of the Koran (or Qur’an) into English and hand-letter each sura (or chapter) onto one of 243 double-paged drawings depicting scenes from American life, a nine-year project he completed in 2013, entitled “American Qur’an.” Birk exhibited the drawings in several museums and galleries and published the entire opus as a book in 2015. Birk has served as artist in residence at several institutions, including the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris (2008) and the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in County Mayo, Ireland (2016). He lives and works in Los Angeles. (TNB 4/2016) Selected bibliography: Linton, Meg. Incarcerated: Visions of California in the 21st Century: Paintings and Prints from the Prisonation Series. Exhibition catalog. With essays by Darius Alexander Spieth and Colin Gardner. Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum; and San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2001. Spieth, Darius Alexander, et al. Sandow Birk: The Depravities of War. Exhibition catalog. Makawao, Maui, Hawai’i: HuiPress Publications; and Santa Ana: Grand Central Press, 2007.
Catharine Clark Gallery