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Learning lessons from wars past

Sandow Birk takes inspiration from 17th and 19th century artists to render his vision of the Iraq conflict's toll.

December 10, 2007|Sharon Mizota | Special to The Times

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the Los Angeles-based artist, 45, who has been combining hard-hitting social and political commentary with cheeky art historical references since the early '90s.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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, December 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Art show images: The images published with an article in Monday's Calendar section about Sandow Birk's "Depravities of War" exhibition at Cal State Long Beach were incorrectly credited. Birk's "Repercussion" was courtesy of the artist and University Art Museum, Cal State Long Beach. The image of Jacques Callot's "The Hospital" was from the collection of the UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, Hammer Museum.

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.

Extra-large prints

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."

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