Sandow Birk's painting "In Days of War" depicts a young man hunched before a large, blank canvas. The studio is littered with paint splatters and other signs of artistic activity, but instead of a brush, the artist holds a newspaper in his hands.
Birk describes the image as "the daily confrontation of sitting down and trying to figure out, with all these things happening, what can you do." It's a familiar dilemma for the Los Angeles-based artist, 45, who has been combining hard-hitting social and political commentary with cheeky art historical references since the early '90s.
In his latest exhibition, on view at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum through Dec. 16, Birk turns his irreverent eye to the conflict in Iraq. In addition to "In Days of War," the show includes related paintings and a monumental cycle of 15 black-and-white woodcut prints. Executed in a stark, high-contrast style, "The Depravities of War" tells an iconic tale of the recruitment and training of troops, the invasion and ensuing insurgency, the scandal at Abu Ghraib and the plight of injured and neglected veterans.
The subject matter is from news photos and soldiers' blogs, but the compositions come from an unexpected source: an obscure series of 17th century French etchings. "Miseries and Misfortunes of War" by printmaker Jacques Callot has been largely ignored by art history, although it inspired the well-known series "The Disasters of War" by 19th century Spanish artist Francisco de Goya.
Birk first came across the Callot prints in 2005, during a residency at HuiPress in Maui, Hawaii. He was immediately struck by their similarity to the events taking place in Iraq and impressed by their candor about the brutality of war. In the Callot images, "Things start to go bad, and soldiers start to desert, and the peasants rise up and it doesn't go as smoothly as heroic painting would present it," he says. "In the end you see the soldiers coming home wounded. That was really something about his work that I admired."
The images in "Depravities" often quote Callot directly, cloaking his compositions in the trappings of present-day Iraq and the U.S. "If he had a picture of a street with a tree on the right, then I would do a street with a tree on the right," Birk says. For reference, he amassed a thick folder of war images from newspapers and websites. "If I needed a house, I would find a photo of an actual house in Baghdad and try to use that."
So the pillaging of a farmhouse in Callot's series becomes the desecration of a mosque. An image of the execution of Saddam Hussein combines the dangling bodies in Callot's "The Hanging Tree" with a platform used for public torture in "The Wheel." Birk's "Repercussion" is almost identical to Callot's "The Hospital." Both portray wounded soldiers lining up for treatment; only the details of architecture and clothing differ.
In addition to updating Callot's imagery, Birk employed another twist: He made the prints unusually large. Because of the limitations of presses and paper, prints are historically modest in scale. Callot's, which are on display at the University Art Museum in an adjacent gallery, are each no bigger than a dollar bill and exquisitely detailed. By contrast, Birk's woodcuts are 4 by 8 feet each and drawn in a blunt, direct style reminiscent of graphic novels or comics. In many places, the marks of the carving tools are clearly visible.
Such massive prints are a technical as well as artistic accomplishment, and the creation of "Depravities" was a long, collaborative process. Begun during Birk's three-week residency at HuiPress in 2005, it was completed only in August of this year. Working closely with master printer Paul Mulloweny, Birk made place mat-size drawings that were enlarged on a photocopier and wheat pasted onto the largest pieces of wood he could find in Hawaii: sheets of birch plywood from Home Depot. With his partner, artist Elyse Pignolet, Birk carved the first set of wood plates, and Mulloweny printed the images onto sheets of handmade Japanese paper. After this process was established and Birk returned to Los Angeles, he sent additional drawings to Mulloweny, who oversaw a team of interns to finish the series.
Prints are often one or more steps removed from the artist's hand, but they are also more easily distributed than unique works of art. For this reason, they are traditionally a good medium for propaganda and political advocacy.
In the exhibition catalog, Marilyn Vierra, director of programs and exhibitions at the Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center, where HuiPress is located, writes, "The appeal of printmaking media to artists motivated by the horrors and injustice of war resides in the replicable nature of prints and thus their ability to carry information to an audience broader than that which a single painting can reach."
By enlarging his prints to the size of modern paintings, Birk effectively subverts this tradition, turning the easily duplicated print back into a rare art object. Vierra notes that the size of Birk's prints lends grandeur and weight to images that we typically see flashing across small, digital screens.
By contrast, Birk's paintings often poke fun at the pretensions of high art. "My paintings are often meant as comments on paintings from the past," he says. A canvas in the current exhibition titled "The Liberation of Baghdad" portrays triumphant soldiers astride a tank, surrounded by cheering locals. Although at first glance it looks like a straightforward celebration, closer inspection reveals bloody bodies in the shadows, and a pair of vicious dogs fighting. "Not only is it talking about the war in Iraq," Birk says, "but it's talking about paintings about warfare . . . the propagandistic, romantic, heroic style of painting that existed previously, and I'm trying to make a comment on how silly those are."
Although Birk hopes that, like Callot and Goya, he's creating works that will endure as documents of the horrors of war, he doesn't believe they have the power to effect change in the present. "I'm sort of pessimistic about thinking that my work has the power to do anything," he says, "I want to say something that's meaningful to me and I want to say something that I believe in, so I just do what I want and hope for the best."
The long view
If anything, the series' art historical associations enable Birk to take a long view of the Iraq conflict. "Depravities" may make a strong statement against war in general, but it also exposes the ambiguities inherent in the current bloodshed. It refuses to glorify the exploits of U.S. soldiers, but it doesn't necessarily sympathize with their enemies, either. The print titled "Insurrection" depicts an insurgent attack on an armored truck. Off to one side a soldier, rifle in hand, watches impassively as an attacker threatens a fellow soldier with a knife. In the distance, another truck burns. Amid the chaos and apathy, it's no longer clear who is an aggressor and who is a victim.
"I didn't want it to be just a one-liner like 'I hate the war,' and that's all," Birk says. "I wanted it to be an image that's not really for or against; it's just showing something and then making you think about it."