View a KQED Education video filmed in February 2012 at Catharine Clark Gallery.
View Spark segment on Sandow Birk. Original air date: June 2006. (Running Time: 8:28)
Catch up Sandow Birk as he describes several of his recent projects, including a hand-transcribed and illustrated project called American Qur’an, and a large-scale drawing about the American Constitution. This KQED Education production was filmed in Februrary, 2012 at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, CA.
Over the last few years, Los Angeles-based painter Sandow Birk has been expanding his artistic scope — and his audience — by turning his sumptuous contemporary history paintings into motion pictures. Spark visits Birk and his crew as they finish production on Dante’s 14th-century epic “The Divine Comedy” — set in 21st-century San Francisco.
Birk is a keen student of art history and often recasts classic subjects and compositions with modern-day figures and narratives. Birk’s work is deeply influenced by history painting, a European tradition of depicting historical events in detailed and often dramatic images. Birk first encountered 19th-century history paintings on a trip through Europe — he was struck by the grand scale of the images and their theatrical tone. Upon returning to the United States, Birk moved into a storefront apartment in South Central Los Angeles and began creating his own versions of history painting, documenting the events that happened in his neighborhood — gang warfare, drug deals, looting and rioting — in that same dramatic style.
Birk’s first film project was “In Smog and Thunder,” a mockumentary inspired by Ken Burns’s marathon 11-hour film about the American Civil War. In Birk’s version, Los Angeles and San Francisco engage in all-out war for control of the entire state of California. Birk got the idea for the project during a month-long trip to San Francisco for his solo show at the Catharine Clark Gallery.
After multiple affronts to his hometown from a variety of Bay Area dwellers, Birk decided to exact his revenge by making a series of canvases in which San Francisco is finally invaded and conquered by Angelinos. After the success of the series, Birk decided he could reach more people by making a film, and he collaborated with filmmakers Sean Meredith and Paul Zaloom to produce the project.
Like “In Smog and Thunder,” Dante’s “Inferno” began as a series of paintings that Birk then decided to make into a film. Using live actors for the project would have been prohibitively expensive — upwards of a million dollars — so Birk decided to make the film using paper cut-out puppets. Set in contemporary San Francisco, the film follows the experiences of a blue jeans-wearing Dante and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, as they tour the depths of Hell, finally meeting the Devil himself.
Sandow Birk was raised in Southern California. He lives and works in Los Angeles. Birk earned a B.F.A. from the Otis Parsons Art Institute in Los Angeles and studied painting and art history at both the American College in Paris and the Bath Academy of Art in England. Birk was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1995, a Fulbright scholarship in 1997 and a Getty Award for the Visual Arts in 1999. His work has been shown in galleries and museums throughout North America and Europe.