Sandow Birk: Checking In
What are the issues and topics that most concern you at the moment that you are expressing through your art?
Well, I’m always very interested in social issues and politics and creating works that comment on our times. So when the lockdown for coronavirus came to us in California in early March, there was the shock of the disruption that caused. At the time, I had begun working on a series of paintings for an upcoming show in Los Angeles that were to be shown in a gallery onboard the museum battleship USS Iowa, which is moored in LA Harbor. That show was postponed, as everything was, but nevertheless I carried on with a series of seascapes that all became metaphors for isolation, the spread of disease, the sinking of the stock market, and even serious work meant to commemorate the historical events of the time.
How has your work been affected by the events of the last six months?
It has definitely been affected both by the physical aspects of working in my studio with kids running around all the time, now, not ever getting quiet time to work or think. Our kids are young and demanding, and we need to get them out of the house a couple of times a day at least, so child care has become a bit time consumer. So trying to squeeze painting time in while at the same time home schooling a six year old, making meals, trying to do research on topics, and keep everything afloat, it’s been very challenging. Doing small works has helped, as they are faster to do require less physical commitment.
As for topics, the non-stop evolution of the coronavirus and the American political scene has my head spinning. Every day brings a new crises, a new catastrophe, and new disaster. All of those are worth painting about, and I use my painting as a way to comment on events and social issues and also to help me get out my own frustrations.
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment and what your inspiration was?
All the paintings I’ve shown you were done this spring and summer during the coronavirus lockdowns, so they all comment on aspects of the pandemic. One is a straightforward painting of the historical arrival of the Navy hospital ship to Los Angeles, which was inspirational and hopeful. The others all use maritime scenes as metaphors. In one, Death comes floating on a shipping container. In another, empty life preservers wash ashore from a shipwreck. In another, a ship named the “Dow Jones” sinks in stormy seas. And finally, two research ships named “Science” and “Reason” are followed and taunted by silly, crazy ships named “Conspiracy” and “Conjecture”. So contemporary events and issues are behind all the works. I guess, more simply, I make works about the things that I’m thinking about or stressed out about in real life. They are attempts to deal with them, I suppose.
How have your plans for 2020 and beyond been changed?
In my normal life, every work I make is for an exhibition and I have that in mind. Since March, every exhibition I had scheduled was postponed or cancelled, so that was a big change. But slowly art exhibitions have been done online and now they are coming back to physical exhibitions in galleries, which is good. So everything has been pushed and that’s disruptive. Also, I normally I try to travel a couple of months of year, and it has been very strange to spend so much time at home. I really miss traveling and seeing art shows and going to new places. We are trying to plan, but nothing is getting scheduled out in the future, as the whole world’s on hold. It’s strange not knowing what’s going to come next or where things will be in two months or six months.
Los Angeles artist Sandow Birk is a well traveled graduate of the Otis/Parson's Art Institute. Frequently developed as expansive, multi-media projects, his works have dealt with contemporary life in its entirety. With an emphasis on social issues, frequent themes of his past work have included inner city violence, graffiti, political issues, travel, war, and prisons, as well as surfing and skateboarding. He was a recipient of an NEA International Travel Grant to Mexico City in 1995 to study mural painting, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996, and a Fulbright Fellowship for painting to Rio de Janeiro for 1997. In 1999 he was awarded a Getty Fellowship for painting, followed by a City of Los Angeles (COLA) Fellowship in 2001. In 2007 he was an artist in residence at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, and at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris in 2008. One of his recent projects involved a consideration of the Qur’an as relevant to contemporary life in America.
Sandow is represented by the Koplin Del Rio Gallery in Seattle, Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, and P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York City.