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Critical Whimsy: Sandow Birk’s American Qur’an at PPOW

by Susi, 7 August 2010

sandow birk painter LA Times

Sandow Birk is one of the most interesting artists working (hard) in America. I began following his work at first because our friendship is a Bali bond. Then I  continued following because it’s impossible not to once you start. There’s a plethora of plots to follow in Sandow’s work, all of them with twists. He’s prolific, proficient, precocious, provocative, and still really young (meaning under 50). By way of introduction he’s done a critically acclaimed series of epic history paintings in the grand tradition entitled “The Great War of the Californias,” and a painted restaging of Dante’s Inferno set in LA today and worthy of a spectacularly staged full-on opera to the music of Lou Reed from his Metal Machine Music period. Sandow’s speciality is making deep irony look “fun”. Devilishly smart, in other words.

Years ago, Sandow and I met while working together creating a monumental collection of carved panels for the Hawaii home of Silicon Valley success-surfer and disk-spinner extraordinaire, Steve Luczo (who btw happens to be happily married-with-kids to the sincerely beautiful woman-who-models, Agatha Relota). Obviously, there’s beauty in this story from every angle, so read on.

Sandow has surfed Indonesia a number of times, and was commissioned by Steve to come to Bali to absorb the artistic what-the-what that is here, or was here, in order to create a set of drawings for this epic group of Balinese panels for Steve’s Hawaii beach house. Sandow got it. He got Bali on a gut level, and I don’t mean he got “Bali Belly” He absorbed the Bali Thing into his pores without even trying. He hung with our Bali carvers, he rummaged around temples, palaces, galleries, jungles and pointed point breaks down Uluwatu way, then came up with a splendid set of very Bali drawings which the Balinese carvers received with great glee. They carved with chisels, they carved with grins, they carved with demons, nymphs and kings. The panels were pretty good, in other words. We are all very happy.

American Qur'an Sandow Birk

And right now I am specifically happy because in a few weeks’ time, PPOW gallery in New York opens a show of works from Sandow’s epic long-term opus, American Qur’an. He has undertaken to paint every surat from the Qur’an, illuminated in the margins with scenes from life, meaning life in America from catastrophe to catastrophe, as it is being lived. In classic Sandow fashion, this project is an itch-inducing thorny tightrope of  works, but it works, because he’s not in fact cashing in on cross-cultural hypersensitivities here. Instead he exposes the absurdity of this neurotic hypersensitivity itself, along with the bend-over-backwards politesse of American mass culture toward The (hated and feared) Other, in this case Islam. American Qur’an goes further still, by inviting us through its deep irony to see how the velvet glove of American political correctness fails miserably to conceal the iron knuckles of ignorance and fear.

contemporary figurative painter sandow birk american disasters quran

The pointed paintings of American Qur’an save Sandow from a fatwa by being packaged as pop, as Zippy the Pinhead comics of life. And there‘s the real statement. These days, it seems a serious man can only get critical whimsy in under the radar if he cloaks it in the stealth bombing costume of a harmless kook. (We don’t want another Danish debacle, now do we? So coat it in candy. Pop rocks come to mind. They were dangerous candy that wasn’t actually dangerous. We really liked them and will never forget them, those of us who lived through the Pop Rocks epoch of American history without exploding or imploding. Are we having fun yet?)

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