Sandow Birk: My SoCal Art History

The history of art in Southern California isn't linear; it is a fluid, multi-angled continuum made from the personal experiences of many artists from myriad backgrounds. So to trace the trajectory of Southern California art, Artbound is creating a collective timeline comprised of the decisive events that shaped artists' creative development. We hope that in the space between these personal histories, an impressionistic view of Southern California's art history will come into focus.

Today we talk to Los Angeles artist Sandow Birk.

Zero One Gallery

How did this gallery influence your work?

The Zero One gallery was this underground gallery run by this guy called John Polchna. It started as a bar in Hollywood. But he was always broke, always illegal, and on the edge of going out of business at any moment. I remember the first time I started to go to see shows at his gallery, he was in the basement of an apartment building on Highland, north of Hollywood Blvd. I remember going to see a Raymond Pettibon show there and it was raining that night. The whole gallery was about two inches flooded in water and all of the lights had gone out so you were walking around in the water and worried about getting electrocuted because things were being run on clamp lights. He had this gallery that you could do whatever you want. You'd hang your own show and buy your own big bucket full of beer and ice and you'd put on a show. It was always the most interesting thing going on, especially for people my age just coming out of school who weren't showing in mainstream commercial galleries. He moved his gallery to the second floor of a building on Hollywood Blvd. for a little while. I remember going there when I was in college because you could go to the Zero One Gallery and drink under-age. Finally, he moved his gallery to a storefront on the corner of Melrose and La Brea across from Pink's Hot Dog Stand and it was there for years and years. That's when it really hit its stride. You could go any Friday night and there would be something going on or a band would be playing there. He did a lot of shows of the early punk rock illustrators like Raymond Pettibon and Gary Panter, and Robert Williams.

Zero One Gallery | Photo: Courtesy of LAPL.
Zero One Gallery | Photo: Courtesy of LAPL.

What kind of demographic was drawn to this?

It attracted all kinds of crazy people. He was one of the first to really start showing graffiti and art coming out of graffiti. He had all these group shows and you would show up and be a part of the show. It was a real do-it-yourself sort of attitude, the punk rock attitude. You just show up, pound some nails in the walls, buy a twelve pack, and start handing it around, and then you have an art show. John used to walk around and he'd have a big 7/11 big gulp cup full of vodka and orange juice. He would walk around during the opening and he'd just get sloshed and he'd try to talk people into buying paintings. He was never that great at selling stuff. Or he'd sell it and wouldn't have the money to pay the artist. And there were always these wars going on about who he owed money to. Maybe drug deals were going on out the back door. He'd do anything for money to keep the thing afloat. I remember one time he owed somebody a lot of money and they chased him until finally somebody went to the gallery in the middle of the night and taped a big firecracker to the front window and they blew out the window and it shattered. So then for next six months there was no glass in the window. Other times, there would be openings where he couldn't pay the electric bill and so the whole gallery would be dark with no window in the front. Everyone would be standing, drinking and trying to look at paintings. It was just fantastic.


It seems like he captured, at a street level, what was going on with Helter Skelter at MOCA

I clearly remember the Helter Skelter show at MOCA. That was a really groundbreaking moment - to put on a show of artists from L.A. To be a young painter living in Hollywood and struggling away with no one looking at my paintings, it really felt like L.A. was coming up. Then MOCA showed up and showed contemporary art, people from your own town, people that you know and hang out with. That was a great moment. But John was the counter, the dark side of what was being shown at Helter Skelter, which was even the dark side of mainstream. He was the under-underground.

The L.A. Riots

How did the riots impact you?

In 1992, I was living in an illegal storefront studio on Madison Ave. near Santa Monica and Vermont in East Hollywood. I was doing these paintings that were spoofy send ups of traditional European salon paintings. I was painting scenes of life in my neighborhood: graffiti, drug deals, cops, and things like that. When the riots broke out it was really a transformative thing. But for anyone in L.A. for those four days in 1992 when the city was on fire and the cops were gone and there were gun battles raging, it was really remarkable. It wasn't just those four days, it was the whole build-up. The Rodney King affair, the trial going on for so long, the riots themselves, what came after it. I think there was a huge sense that Los Angeles was the center of the world, the center of nation for that time period. Everyone was looking at L.A. and L.A. was rising up to fight the good fight for justice. Afterward, everything was supposed to change - and it did and it didn't - but it sure had a lasting impact.

L.A. Riots | Photo: Courtesy of LAPL.
L.A. Riots | Photo: Courtesy of LAPL.

How did the effect of the riots translate into how you went about your own work?

I was doing these paintings that were spoofs of the idea of romantic French painting from the 1800's, taking drug dealers and gangsters and raising them to make them the stars of these grandiose salon paintings. And then when the riots broke out, suddenly it made me question my own work and I had to think, "Am I really doing send ups and making fun of history painting?" Or, now that these momentous events have happened in my own city, maybe I should think about what it means to do real history paintings. And I started wondering whether it would be possible to be a history painter in the 21st century. So I started painting things like the beating of Rodney King and Reginald Denny and the arrest of OJ Simpson. For awhile I had this idea that I wanted to be the history painter of Los Angeles - that Los Angeles was the center of the world and I was going to document it.

Coagula Magazine

There are many elements to Coagula. Which ones were you interested in?

Coagula Magazine was put together by Matt Gleason. He was a guy that you would see around town going to all the art openings. I believe he was going to be a painter and gave it up to be an art critic. It was easier and more to his temperament. But he started putting out this little magazine on newsprint that he would have hanging around these galleries for free. It was sort of just this trashy rag about the art world. It was fantastic. There hasn't really been anything like it. It was a do-it-yourself punk rock zine. He would have art reviews of all the shows and he would bash the museums. He would have articles about who was the worst, meanest receptionist at all the galleries. He was just really aggressive. They were crude, rude, no-bullshit, tell-it-like-it-is art reviews. It was a totally different voice than what you were hearing in magazines and in the L.A. Times. People would be cringing when the newest issue was coming out and they would run to get it because they wanted to see if they were in it.

Did he ever review you?

I'm sure he did. He wrote about me. He wrote about everyone. He would write about the biggest shows at LACMA and then he would write about the littlest show at the littlest gallery, and he still does. But at that time there weren't many art magazines in L.A. Art journalism was coming out of New York, and here was someone from the streets of L.A. saying, "You know, fuck it, let's talk about art in a different way, and let's talk about the shows we want to talk about and write about them how we want to write about them." And it was fantastic.

There seems to be an underlying narrative to what you are talking about - almost an outsider/insider dichotomy.

Even before I was an artist, I grew up in the punk rock world going to tiny little clubs in garages and watching bands play. So when I got out of art school and wanted to be a painter, I wasn't part of the art world. Me and my friends were nobodies. We were struggling away in these empty storefront studios painting. And no one was looking at our paintings but ourselves. So things that affected me were people on my own level. We were all fighting for attention, taking risks, doing interesting art works, talking about them and trying to get people to see them any way we could.

The Dresden, Nikodell, Yee Mee Loo, and Cocola

How were these social spaces influential for art?

When I got out of school, I started working in the art delivery business and working for different galleries all over town hammering nails and painting the walls white and bartending at openings. It was fine because it was sporadic work and irregular hours and you got to go the galleries and meet the big name artists and be a part of the art world in some sense. A lot of my friends did the same kind of work. So we would go to openings four or five days a week - all in different neighborhoods throughout L.A. When the openings were done at nine o'clock, we would all be standing around on the sidewalk and be like, "Okay, where are we going to go to now?" We would go the nearest bar. It would be sort of a game of who knew the coolest bar in whatever neighborhood of the thousands of neighborhoods in L.A. We would go drinking in these bars and come together after painting all day in our studios We would talk about what we are doing and the art world. They were huge influences on me. I would go to the Dresden in Hollywood. We would go to Yee Mee Loo's in Chinatown. For awhile there were these bars in downtown that were considered to be art bars: Cocola and Al's bar in the arts district. We would end up in places like that.

We used to go to bars that had paintings in them like the Nikodell on Melrose, which had Tijuana paintings of naked ladies. We would drink and look at them and discuss them and really admire them. We used to go to this other bar on Hollywood Blvd. across from the Chinese theater called the Sideshow. The whole outside was yellow and white stripes and you'd go in and the theme was like you were in a circus. All the paintings on the walls were clown paintings and it was great. We would sit in there and feel like we were painters.

Nickodell Bar | Photo: Courtesy of LAPL.
Nickodell Bar | Photo: Courtesy of LAPL.

So these were the intellectual hot spots for you guys to discuss your work?

It was really the idea that there was a community of us struggling people who cared about art and talked about art. One of the things about being an artist that they don't really tell you is that you go to art school and spend all day for four years talking and arguing and thinking and reading about art. It is so intellectual. When you graduate, you are suddenly standing in your empty room painting and no one talks to you about painting at all. So you have to beg your friends to come over just to get some feedback. So there was this whole social scene of people that didn't have day jobs and painted all day and drank all night. It was really important. I don't want to make it sound like it was just drinking. It was really the conversations and the scene.

The Earl McGrath Gallery

After three or four years out of art school, I got a job working for Earl Mcgrath. He had a gallery on Robertson near Melrose and he lived upstairs. Earl was an infamous L.A. character. He had been the manager of The Rolling Stones, and all these big name artists in New York were his personal friends. And he knew all the actors in Hollywood. So he ran this gallery and I worked there painting the walls and bartending, answering the phone. etc. And it was a great place. He wasn't really concerned with making money. He would put on an art show of really interesting people and I got to meet all the people and rub elbows with Bryce Martin and William Burroughs and movie stars, all kinds of people. He had this fantastic courtyard in front of his gallery that he would set up so that the whole opening would sort of spill out into the little garden and he would have a full bar which was always a draw. You would go to every opening and run into a movie star. The kind of cross section of people that would come was great.

Courtesy of Sandow Birk.
Courtesy of Sandow Birk.

Celebrities are celebrities, but in certain places they are are not.

This was a place they were not. No one was following them around, they would just be there looking at the artworks and stuff. I was working for Earl for awhile and he was great. He was this really funny guy. We'd be sitting in the gallery on a Tuesday afternoon and no one would come in and he'd say, "Fuck it. Let's lock the doors and have martinis." He was really like a friend. He also lived in New York and he would come back and forth. And one time when he was in New York for an extended time, I was left sitting alone in the gallery answering the phone. At one point, Artscene Magazine called up and they said "we are putting together our summer issue and we need to know the next three shows coming to put onto our calendar." So I was looking through the desk and found the first two shows, but I couldn't find the third one. So I said, "The third show is Sandow Birk." And they said okay and put it in their thing. I never told Earl about it until the magazine came out and it was scheduled with my name was on the calendar. And he thought it was so funny that he said, "Oh, okay go ahead. You can have a show." And that was my first show ever in LA.

Courtesy of Sandow Birk.
Courtesy of Sandow Birk.

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