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California Goes to War

Artist Uses Mock Heroic Portraits, Visual Puns to Create an Imaginary North-South Conflict


Museum-goers listen intently to the booming voice of the narrator that guides them through a watershed moment in history:

"The Great War of the Californias was fought in a thousand places: from Lake Tahoe to Tijuana, in places like Potrero and Pasadena, Bakersfield and Beverly Hills, Telegraph Hill and Tarzana. . . . The Great War rolled up an unlikely mixture of personalities, decisions and actions into the giant burrito of history."

Burrito? Wait a minute. This is no documentary. It's a mockumentary in which artist Sandow Birk, an Orange County native, capitalizes on the enduring conflict between the North and the South--California style--in his Laguna Art Museum multimedia exhibit.

"In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works from the Great War of the Californias" presents epic battle scenes, pompous portraits and propaganda posters in a show that is a cross between "Mad Max" and the reverent historical paintings of 19th-century portraitist Delacroix.

Birk got the idea while living in San Francisco. As a "Southerner," he faced ridicule and animosity from Bay Area residents, he said.

"Every time I went into a bar and they found out I was from L.A., there would be this big hostility. . . . So I got the idea of San Francisco being invaded by Los Angeles, by everything they dread, like pornography, the water issue, the LAPD, the recording industry, Disneyland, cops and robbers, immigration," Birk said. "It's a cultural terror. They're so afraid of Los Angeles taking over, and I'm using that as a joke."

Elements of paintings in the exhibit represent stereotypes about the two regions. They follow the war as the Southern army clashes with the Northern forces--the Java alliance--in big, bloody battles.

Part of the put-on is that the exhibit is on loan from the nonexistent California War Museum in Tijuana, and that the paintings, drawings, posters and installations are created by a multitude of artists.

A pseudo-historical commentary accompanies the exhibit, in the form of didactic panels and an audio tour; it comes on CD with the catalog. The narrative includes sound effects, newscasts and even traffic reports.

Laptops on the Battlefield

Inspired by the romantic style of the 1880s, Birk paints mock heroic portraits and elaborate battle scenes but with contemporary visual puns. Among the fallen, on the blood-soaked battlefield, are laptops and the occasional Thomas Bros. guide.

One hero, Gen. Felix Hernandez, wears a Budweiser Light cap and an L.A. Olympics '84 T-shirt.

A portrait of Lt. Quincy Salino is also classic war hero stuff: He's charging ahead, saber drawn. But in Birk's version, the horse is a Ducati motorcycle.

Field Commander Toma Agua is portrayed on a horse that carries the Nike swoosh, and its saddle has sponsor insignia from Pizza Hut. Instead of a saber, Agua triumphantly swings a plastic bottle of water over his head.

Birk, who has studied in London and Paris, took inspiration from Napoleonic paintings.

"Pictures of Napoleon and Josephine being crowned are just as fictional," Birk said. "They would change things, put people in [the painting] who weren't actually there, or change something from evening to day."

Birk's paintings seem to say that history is manufactured in retrospect.

"People always ask if I was into war as a kid. . . . But it really comes from my [fascination] with art history, romantic paintings and the supposedly historical paintings," Birk said. "I'm a painter, and I have always been interested in the role of painting and what it can do."

On the audio tour, fake art criticism compounds the conceit:

"While many of the artworks you will see in this exhibition are lacking in professionalism, it's their importance as relics of a momentous history [that is important]. They tell a moving tale ranging from the heights of national heroism to the depths of personal loss and sacrifice."

This war, the narrator explains, was "the war of the cities, the struggle of fog and smog, and even surf versus turf," and it gave birth to some accidental heroes:

"A struggling actress from Fresno, with nothing more notable on her resume than a part as a scantily clad letter-turner on a failed game show, was to lead California's largest mobile assault and turn the tide of the war. An immigrant laborer from Mexico, with a love of gardening and a bad back, would command 10,000 troops in one of the bloodiest battles in defense of his Angeleno homeland."

As part of the satire, the museum has been transformed into an august institution, not unlike the Royal Academy in London. The walls have been painted in dark, muted colors, and the paintings tilted from the wall. Some have been torn and repaired to further the illusion of age.

Birk, who pored over Civil War books, uses four media or styles of that time and World War II: battle scenes and portraits in oil, drawings made to look like Goya etchings, propaganda posters that echo those of the WPA, and sea battle installations.

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