Sandow Birk: “Depravities & Monuments” at SDSU Downtown Gallery


“Proposal for a Monument to the Treaty of Outer Space,”
from ‘Imaginary Monuments,’ 2016, Sandow Birk
Ink on paper, 60″ x 42″
Photo: courtesy the artist and Koplin Del Rio Gallery, Seattle, WA

LA-based Sandow Birk’s “Depravities & Monuments” cuts through the noise of mass media through a timeless and still form. ‘Depravities’ consists of 14 woodcut prints from Birk’s 2007 series, The Depravities of War, responding to the Iraq War. ‘Monuments’ comprises 10 etchings and drawings from Birk’s ongoing series Imaginary Monuments. The show opens with The Blind Leading the Blind, (2010), an apt metaphor for the current US state of affairs.

Imaginary Monuments presents large-scale detailed renderings of memorials honoring laws and declarations pertaining to human rights and criminal justice, to the Internet, international sports codes, ocean use, and space exploration. Influenced by Piranesi’s 18th-century etchings, Views of Rome, Birk’s work draws attention to often violated agreements on both a subversive and idealistic level. Proposal for a Campus of Monuments to All the Wars and Interventions of the United States (2016) offers a memorial on par with the Grand Canyon, with names of hundreds of countries inscribed into the architecture. A couple sits on a bench dwarfed by the vastness. ‘Manifest Destiny’ and ‘Empire’ are etched across the landscape, harking back to Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire. The memorial’s buildings pollute the landscape, while a volcano with a mushroom-like cloud erupts, denoting humanity’s capacity for self-destruction. Proposal for a Monument to the NYPD (2015) addresses the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk program and its use of excessive force, epitomized by the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner. The monument precariously rests upon a splintering smoking tower; at its base a 9/11 ‘United We Stand, Thank You Heroes’ banner lies. At the top of the monument scratched text reads: ‘I Can’t Breathe’, ‘Cops Kill’, and ‘Black Lives Matter’ along with patrol guidelines concerning chokeholds. Birk oscillates between the NYPD as heroes in the wake of 9/11 and as a force abusing its power. Proposal for a Triumphal Arch and Garden (2015) highlights the shaky foundation George W. Bush and his cabinet used to justify the Iraq War—their quotes are inscribed on a crumbling arch alongside numbers of dead US soldiers.

Imaginary Monuments expands on Birk’s raw and ominous Depravities of War (2007), influenced by Callot’s early 17th-century Miseries of War and Goya’s 18th-century Disasters of War. Depravities of War (2007) presents the stages of the Iraq War from the initial recruitment of young American soldiers to Detention, Degradation, and Humiliation; ending with images of the war’s forgotten disabled vets. In doing so, Birk encourages us to contemplate the imaginary ideals attached to our government with its actual depravities.