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A lively deathwatch

In 10 commissioned prints, Sandow Birk takes a wry look at America's lethal habits.

June 19, 2005|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

In spite of its title, "Leading Causes of Death in America" is actually a fairly upbeat series of work, according to artist Sandow Birk. Most subjects that Birk gravitates to -- gang violence, the growing prison population, rampant consumerism -- have the potential to dismay if not depress, but he leavens his work with wit and the reassurance of the familiar.

Birk is an irreverent mixer of the mythic and the mundane. He channels styles and strategies of past art to interpret present-day reality, enacting a delicious sense of time warp. He has recently published an adaptation of Dante's "Inferno," with illustrations set in contemporary urban America. Birk, a mellow surfer with an editorialist's grasp of contemporary affairs, is a chronicler of life in the manner of Hogarth, Daumier, Goya and, lately, George Wesley Bellows.

The San Diego Museum of Art holds in its collection roughly half of the 200-plus prints that Bellows made. It was to these that Birk turned when the museum commissioned him to create a new body of work in response to something in its collection. The project is the third in the museum's "Contemporary Links" series, organized by Betti-Sue Hertz, curator of contemporary art.

Bellows (1882-1925) called himself "a spectator of life, a reverential, enthusiastic, emotional spectator." Like Birk, he fused the tender and the raw, his tone verging on satire at times, or scathing social critique. A political progressive and aesthetic moderate, Bellows is associated with the Ashcan School, a loosely knit group of painters devoted to urban realism and unafraid to portray its sooty underside. Though best known for his atmospheric boxing scenes, Bellows' reach was broad, embracing portraiture, nudes and genre scenes. When he turned to lithography in 1916, his prints spanned a similar breadth.

The Long Beach-based Birk, 42, a 1988 graduate of the Otis Art Institute and recipient of J. Paul Getty and Guggenheim fellowships, created a suite of 10 etchings plus a title page. Each image relates to a specific cause of death -- suicide, accidents, heart attack, diabetes, stroke, cancer -- and many transpose individual figures from Bellows' prints into new contexts. An exhibition continuing through Aug. 14 joins Birk's set of prints with selections from Bellows and a small assortment of other prints that also served as source material. Upon completion of his final print, Birk discussed the project by telephone:

The way we are

I looked at a wide variety of work, but Bellows' prints appealed to me because of his social themes and genre work. I've always been interested in the Ashcan School. They're interesting to look at, but at the same time, they're an odd bunch of guys. When Cubism was happening and all sorts of more radical things were going on, they were kind of steadfast traditionalists. They don't seem to have been very fun guys to hang out with. They seem really stern people.

Originally, I didn't know that much about Bellows. I knew his boxing paintings, his most well-known stuff. Some great prints I didn't know about -- like the World War I work -- but there were also some that were really bad. I guess he was sort of experimenting with lithography and maybe doing some quick sketches as prints just to work on things. That's interesting to me as an artist because I can see his work process happening, maybe his thinking process a bit, and that's not something that you normally see in an artist's work when you see it in a museum. You usually just get to see a few great pieces, not the lesser stuff, which is helpful.

When I sat down to really look at the compositions I could borrow from, I knew I wanted to use something from the boxing prints, to make that immediate connection between his work and mine. Then I looked for certain figures I could pull out. If I wasn't pulling something out, I was trying to use dramatic lights and darks so my rich black tones look similar to his.

The images started as pencil drawings. Paul [Mullowney, of the Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center in Maui, where the prints were made] etched them into copperplates. When they're etched and printed, they're still only halfway done. A huge part of the process is working on the metal plates with special tools, grinding and scratching. We worked on it in a real physical way. He printed a piece every time I changed it, and there's a big difference between the final prints and the pencil drawings. The drawings are all graphite and shiny, and the prints are really deep and rich.

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