loud paper interviews Sandow Birk

Sandow Birk’s paintings embody the decaying spirit of modern times, and the dance between life and death in the city. The emotional gravity captured in his work reflects his admiration for the heroic paintings by old masters. In paying homage to them and updating their setting to the contemporary city, Birk combines the patterning and composition of these paintings with the wholly real effects of daily life in the midst of urban decay.

LP: You have a strong affection for neoclassical paintings...

SB: When I first went to art school my concentration was eighteenth and nineteenth-century painting. The paintings that I’m now using as the base for my work are ones I studied in school. For example, my painting, The Death of Manuel, is based on Gerard David’s The Death of Marat. The original painting is a depiction of someone’s death, but David took death, and through the use light and paint created a romantic drama. The role of painting within art traditions is changing, and I would venture that it is probably at its lowest point right now, in part due to the omni-presence of television and the primacy of the moving image. Back in the 1700s and 1800s many artists were engaged in the painting of images of war, largely to convince the population that it was worth sacrificing their sons to the fight. This use of painting as a form of propaganda, contributed to the development of its new subject, the romanticization of death. The whole idea of this school of painting was not to record the truth about what happened, but to romanticize it, transform it into the heroic. I believe that gangs—their symbolism and imagery—operate in the same frame of mind.

LP: How does your audience, both established and new, react to this type of politically and racially charged work?

SB: One time, about ten years ago, I had a show called "Gang Paintings." Immediately the gallery began receiving phone calls. People were interested in the show because it had the tag line "gang," and so everyone was calling in and trying to get more information about the artist. Most of them were curious about my racial identity. "Is he Hispanic?" they asked and the gallery would respond "No, he’s White." People would seem offended, simply because I’m White. The subject matter of my paintings is American Culture, not just Los Angeles and its ethnicities.

LP: You used to live off Adams and Crenshaw in Los Angeles?

SB: I taught high school for a year in South Central. I was working and painting at the same time. While I was teaching, I’d be drawing on the back of papers! I’d draw diagrams of the hairstyles and clothing the kids were wearing. I’d copy the graffiti from the walls. That’s when I met one of Compton’s district attorneys. She is a prosecutor for the D.A. Gang Unit and so all of her cases involve gang-related crimes. A lot of people think my paintings are too violent, but I am not making up stories. The real stories the D.A. would tell me were horrific! To research a theme I would sit through a gang trial for a few days and then go to the scene where the crime actually happened. I did a couple of small paintings at the scene, but normally I would just draw the crime and record the day and time.

LP: Did you have gang members come to the gallery shows?

SB: When I first started painting, I was really worried about their attitudes towards my work. But the guys were really in to them and started to tell me what was wrong with my portrayal of them. Things like, why this gang member wouldn’t be wearing these clothes or why this guy wouldn’t be on this street. In one painting, I’ll paint the Bloods. In the next I’ll paint the Crips. Then I’ll paint one with everyone in them. The first paintings had all Blacks, the next had all Asians and the next had all Mexicans. Then I started putting them all in the same scene. I began trying to integrate all of these "rules" into one painting that could never exist in the reality of the setting.

LP: When did you decide to incorporate graffiti into your art?

SB: I had been looking at graffiti a lot. There is an elementary school near where I live. One afternoon, there were some kids walking by with a sketchbook. I asked the kids whose book it was and they said they had borrowed it from a graffiti artist. I saw it, and told them I wanted to meet him. Through meeting this one artist I eventually met more graffiti artists. I began to use graffiti as the background of the painting and then I would paint over them. Eventually I would give a guy a white canvas and show him the classical painting I was going to copy so he’d know where the subject would be and where the blank spaces were. Every graffiti artist has his own style. One graffiti artist, Devin Flynn, added a whole new dimension to my work by becoming totally involved in the process. He would study the pictures of the classical paintings and try to incorporate images that reflected what was going on.

LP: What direction will you be taking your work next?

SB: I think I’ll start doing paintings of actual events, reality is so appalling.