You might see him any morning, surfing off the Orange County coast, venturing confidently into the ocean, as he has done innumerable times over the past 40 years. You might assume that he's just another local surfer, so committed to this water sport that it's the prevailing motivation in his life.
But talk to artist Sandow Birk, 53, who grew up in Seal Beach, and you'll discover that his devotion to surfing has not only compelled him to roam the world looking for the perfect wave. His extensive travels -- along with his inherent inquisitiveness -- provide a foundation for his socially infused artwork, and for a proactive view of the artist's role in society.
Birk's travels have nurtured his intense curiosity and subsequent wide-ranging understanding of the world's diverse cultures. He has ventured throughout Latin America including Mexico and Brazil. He spent a year of studying in Paris and England, and has made many visits to the Middle East. This knowledge has in turn helped expand his perspectives on art, politics and life.
While talking with Birk at the Orange County Museum of Art in early November 2015, as he was installing his "American Qur'an" exhibition, he explained that his outsider/political sensibility was born during his punk rock teenage years in Seal Beach; where he hung out in little clubs and listened to home-grown bands. When he attended Otis College of Art and Design in L.A. in 1981, he still considered himself an outsider, and "not part of the larger art world." After a few years at Otis, he and a friend drove to South America to find the perfect wave. Birk stayed there for three years, on and off, living in Rio de Janeiro and in other hamlets along the coast, surfing as often as he could. He also painted surfboards, designed the Spanish version of "Surfer" magazine, and became fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. Birk's wife, ceramic artist Elyse Pignolet, mentioned that to this day, Birk mainly travels to places where he can surf too.
In 1985, Birk moved to Paris. He studied at the Parsons School of Design, often visiting the Louvre, gazing at and copying 18th and 19th century paintings by Goya and other classic artists. Those works that have inspired and informed the art he subsequently created. "The scale, cinematic quality, and virtuosity made painting seem important and thrilling, as opposed to the bland conceptualism that I was seeing in L.A.," he said. Unable to surf in Paris, he skateboarded through the city streets, subway tunnels and shopping centers, along the drained fountains in the center of the Place de la Concorde, and at the duck ponds under the Eiffel Tower.
But Birk yearned for the ocean waves. After six months, he moved to England to study at the Bath Academy of Art, where he combined studio classes with frequent forays, "to Wales, two hours away by train, where we even surfed in the snow." While in England, he often visited the Tate Museum, again studying and copying old master's paintings, primarily epic-sized 1800s "Romantic" works.
When Birk returned to the states in 1987, he moved to an illegal storefront in L.A.'s Crenshaw District, completing his BFA at Otis two years later. During those years, the city's largely Black and Latino neighborhoods were rife with conflict, Birk says, with gangs, graffiti crews, drug deals and especially cops harassing people. The disenfranchisement of the community was part of what led to L.A.'s civil unrest in 1992. Birk remembers returning home there from an O.C. surf spot late one evening, and being stopped by cops who wanted to arrest him. "They told me that the only white kids in the area were there to buy drugs."
Living there and working in a bakery, as a bouncer at the Greek Theatre and installer in galleries, Birk still carved out time to engage in two favorite activities: surfing the waves and creating South Central versions of the large "grandiose" salon paintings he had studied in Europe. And when the L.A. riots broke out, these "Urban Works," which graphically and colorfully illustrated this besieged area, were suddenly in great demand -- from galleries and for the covers of national magazines. This defining moment altered Birk's life, enabling him to devote more time to his chosen work, and giving him the confidence to pursue his dream to become as he explained, "a history painter of that time," portraying local "heroes," including Rodney King.
Over the ensuing 20 plus years, Birk has completed more than a dozen series in a variety of media, including woodcuts and lithographs, with nearly all works addressing social issues. In 2000, he created "In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works from the Great War of the Californias," comprised of more than 100 pieces, and first exhibited at Laguna Art Museum. "I made this series after hearing so many people in San Francisco make fun of L.A.," he said. This depiction of a fictional war between L.A. and San Francisco examined politics and art history, and included the mythical invasion of San Francisco by L.A.'s "Smog Town" troops, the northern city's counter attack by sea, and a boots on the ground confrontation between the two cities. It was comprised of Birk's characteristic large history paintings, propaganda posters, topographical maps, ship models and portraits of imaginary and often humorous military figures.
"As a fascinated observer of local customs and art forms, Birk could step outside of his native California culture and prevailing notions of appropriate styles and subjects for contemporary art," says Tyler Stallings, UC Riverside's Interim ARTSblock Executive Director.
Stallings was curator at LAM in 2000 and mounted "In Smog and Thunder." He explained recently, "At that time, representational painting was out of fashion among younger artists. But Sandow was more a conceptual artist who used paint. When I tell people about the 'Californias project,' I highlight that the war's end came to pass only when Southern California enlisted the aid of Mexico!" Stallings adds, "I was also enthralled with how he planned out vast projects, like his depictions of the state prisons in California situated in their bucolic settings and his 2006 'Dante's Divine Comedy.'"
This five-year project, illustrated with lithographs and vignettes, adapted the ancient "Divine Comedy" into contemporary slang. Birk's images for this series, inspired by classic 19th century Gustave Doré engravings of the "Inferno," depict a 21st century urban hell, including a decrepit Ralphs, a Starbucks, fast food joints, a falling-apart Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Rushmore. Alyssa Cordova, formerly curatorial associate at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, assisted in the series' 2006 installation there. She explained, "While other artists are quick to edit in their work the lives that most of us lead, Sandow appreciates the beauty of every day life, the alley scenes and the guys with untucked shirts."
Again portraying scenes of everyday life, but in a more magnanimous manner, the artist's "American Qur'an" (2005-14) is currently displayed at the Orange County Museum of Art. This series of 240 hand-painted ink and gouache artworks on paper contain slices of Americana, all of which also metaphorically illustrate the entire English version of the Holy Qur'an; the latter is laboriously hand painted in graffiti lettering by the artist.
Observing this show is to see the panoply of American life through the eyes of a California native. Here are scenes of a wedding, a funeral, church goers, a woman giving birth, Hasidic Jews, undocumented citizens, office workers and people enjoying their meals in a Chinese restaurant. Birk also depicts in this series a dam, a bridge, a forest fire, an earthquake and a large dinosaur at Chicago's Field Museum.
In the accompanying book, "The American Qur'an," with reproductions of all 240 paintings, Islamic scholar/Cornell University professor, Iftikhar Dadi writes, "The significance of Birk's project... is a continued artistic unfolding of the latent implications of the Qur'an in a way that retains its relevance in our and in the geographic space of the United States." Complementing Dadi's scholarly observations are curator Stallings' remarks about Birk's lifetime of work: "He deals with hot-button California issues, like ethnic identity... and the threatened secession of the San Fernando Valley from L.A. He treats the artifacts of today's world as points of intersection for the multiple voices, styles, and attitudes that make up our state's culture."
Sprinkled throughout the Qur'an series are several deeply personal paintings, including four scenes of surfers, one set in Huntington Beach -- a favorite surfing spot of Birk.
"Sandow Birk: American Qur'an" is on view November 7, 2015 to February 28, 2016 at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach.