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Sandow Birk: Depravities of War

Chronicle & Critique

At the entrance of Catherine Clark Gallery visitors are confronted with a massive black and white woodblock print bearing the phrase “The Depravities of War” chiseled into a monolithic stone monument that is crumbling into ruin. Set against a war torn landscape, the structure is surrounded by shrouded figures posed to express their various states of emotional despair. This is the first in a series of large format prints and paintings by Sandow Birk who uses highly charged, media-inspired images to chronicle and critique the Iraq war.

Birk, a Los Angeles-based artist known for reinvesting art historical traditions and iconography with contemporary issues, produced this cycle during his residency at Hui No`eau Visual Arts Center in Hawaii, where he collaborated with printer Paul Mullawey and six assistants. Birk’s suite of prints take inspiration from the “reportage” imagery of the 17th century printmaster Jacques Callot, whose war-time chronicles in turn inspired Goya’s "Disasters of War (Los desastres de la Guerra)" series almost two hundred years later. Their dark, jagged contour lines echo the pathos-laden work of post-WWI German Expressionists such as Käthe Kollwitz whose work exploring the human condition was fueled by the loss of her own son on the battlefields. Like his predecessors, Birk’s prints suggest both the eternal and the cyclical nature of war.

In "Obsession (2007)" an anonymous group of young men and women crowd around recruitment desk to enlist under the lure of free education. "Preparation (2007)" depicts the early lessons of military life as a drill instructor strikes an authoritarian pose in the face of a large assembly of new recruits standing at attention. "Invasion" is a heart-wrenching demonstration of United States military might: a row of tanks assert their aggressive prowess over a bleak, blighted landscape as dark plumes of smoke obscure the horizon line. Perhaps one of the most iconic scenes is "Execution", which envisions the scenario of the former dictator’s very public execution, whose body hanging from the gallows occupies a dark, central place in the print.

In addition to prints, the exhibition includes several paintings; large canvasses and intimate portraits are rendered in meticulous clarity and detail and demonstrate the ease of Birk’s fluidity between mediums and traditions. "The Liberation of Baghdad (2006)" an epic-sized work measuring 64 x 92 inches, calls upon on the tradition of grand narrative painting to question distortion of actual events into a mythic justification. In another gruesome scene from the painting "Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld Presenting His Plan for the Invasion of Iraq", a cast of familiar characters -- Condi, Dick and a Bible-clutching G. W. -- gather in the Oval Office as the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner unfurls ominously across the President’s desk.

The contemporaneousness of Birk’s series offers haunting (and not too distant) reminders of what has already come to pass. Given that we are still embroiled in the war it seems that, sadly, this suite may be unfinished business.

Sandow Birk: Depravities of War
at Catherine Clark Gallery
runs through October 20th