San Jose Museum of Art

San Jose, CA



Carioca: A Year Among the Natives of Rio de Janeiro, Work by Sandow Birk


During a 1997 Fulbright Scholarship residency in Rio de Janeiro, Sandow Birk cast himself in the role of an explorer to create a group of works that reexamines the role of the visiting artist as scientist and social critic. Carioca: A Year Among the Natives of Rio de Janeiro, Work by Sandow Birk assembles a wryly intelligent group of drawings and paintings which records the contemporary landscape and inhabitants of Rio; in doing so, he parodies the nineteenth-century artist/explorers' pseudo-scientific documentation of "exotic" locales and their "savage" inhabitants. The exhibition opens at the San Jose Museum of Art on Sunday, October 24, 1999 and runs through Sunday, January 9, 2000.

Birk developed his concept for the Rio project by following the lead of early Western explorers in search of new lands. Before the mid-nineteenth century invention of photography, adventurers were often accompanied by artists who documented new territories and inhabitants in order to share their discoveries with the "civilized" world. Among such traveling artists were Frenchmen Jean-Baptiste Debret and German Johann Moritz Rugendas, who both explored Brazil in the early nineteenth century. Over time, their careful, "objective" records of the Brazilian landscape and society have come to he regarded as subjective, and guilty of contributing to stereotypical views of Brazil as exotic, savage, and pagan. (left: Surfer at Arpoador Beach, Rio and Girl at Copacabana, Rio, 1997, acrylic on aluminum, 2 paintings, each 24 x 20 inches)

"I wanted to show the realities of daily life in Rio, the bad parts as well as the good -- that the police are frightening, children are homeless, the sunsets are spectacular, common maids have dignity, and soccer clubs inspire loyalty akin to jingoism and patriotism. More simply, it is a big, amazing place full of contradictions, like most cities in the world." --Sandow Birk

In the works included in Carioca, Birk adopts specific compositions used by Debret and Rugendas to triumph over their stereotypical legacy and create a vibrantly clear picture of a complex, modern city. At the same time, Birk retains a sense of Rio's distinct cultural identity. He states, "Rio is at once very similar to our own culture (surfboards, Uzis, and electric guitars) and at the same time very different (voo doo, Carnaval, and incredible beauty)." In his satirical portraits of Cariocas (natives of Rio), Birk replaces the historical versions of typical inhabitants with a surfer, a cleaning woman, and a soccer fan. Genre scenes appropriate the style and compositions of Debret and Rugendas, while portraying such contemporary subjects as a woman on a beach with a cell phone. Carioca also includes a series of ex-votos or retablos. Traditionally, these small folk art paintings on tin are religious in nature and are displayed in domestic shrines. Birk's contemporary retablos depict his personal experiences and function as a diary of his life in Rio. (left: Girl from Dona Marta, Rio and Young Soccer Fan, Rio, 1997, acrylic on aluminum, 2 paintings, each 24 x 20 inches)

Southern California-based, Birk received his BFA from Otis Art Institute of Parson's School of Design in Los Angeles. An extensive traveler, he pursued additional studies in England and France, concentrating on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European history painting. In addition to this knowledge of history painting, Birk's Rio project came out of a long fascination and familiarity with Brazil; he has traveled there frequently, has lived in Rio de Janeiro off and on for four years, and is fluent in Portugese. In 1991, he received a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Rio, where he spent eleven months creating the work in Carioca. He has also won a Basil H. Alkazzi Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a N.E.A. International Travel Grant.

Carioca: A Year Among the Natives of Rio de Janeiro was organized by Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, California, and curated by Susan M. Anderson. The San Jose presentation is organized by SJMA Assistant Curator Patricia Hickson.

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