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Sandow Birk: Leading Causes of Death in America

June 4 - August 14, 2005


(above Sandow Birk, Accidents, 2005, intaglio print with chine collé on Japanese gampi backed by Somerset white paper, 30 x 22 inches (plate sizes 22 x 17 inches). © San Diego Museum of Art. Gift of the artist)


The third installment of the San Diego Museum of Art's acclaimed Contemporary Links series presents eleven commissioned etchings by the provocative West Coast artist, Sandow Birk. Titled Leading Causes of Death in America, the prints take a humorous look at a normally serious subject and are loosely based on a selection of images from the San Diego Museum of Art's collection of 149 lithographs by George Bellows, the early 20th-century American Realist artist who was associated with the Ashcan School. (right: Sandow Birk, Heart Attack, 2005, intaglio print with chine collé on Japanese gampi backed by Somerset white paper, 30 x 22 inches (plate sizes 22 x 17 inches) © San Diego Museum of Art. Gift of the artist)

For more than fifteen years, Sandow Birk, who is based in Long Beach, California, has been successfully appropriating the look and imagery of well-known historical prints and paintings to create poignant satires of contemporary American life. His eleven etchings for the San Diego Museum of Art, including an introductory title page, borrow from the imagery, techniques, and compositions of a number of lithographs by Bellows. Several works by Bellows that Birk draws from will be presented in the exhibition in addition to other important historical prints by Honoré Daumier, Edouard Manet, John Sloan, and Paul Cadmus, some of which the artist directly references as well.

Like Bellows, Birk is a sharp observer of the impact of the changing city and social mores on the lives of citizens. He is known for his astute yet humorous social commentary on topics ranging from consumerism to popular culture. In the past Birk has parodied works by other famous artists, including the 18th-century British painter and printmaker William Hogarth. He has also appropriated the styles of 19th-century American landscape painters such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt.

In Leading Causes of Death in America, Birk reveals the way American's live, focusing on why we die by drawing on current research on disease trends like a medical anthropologist. He depicts the causes as excess-too much smoking and drinking, overeating, compulsive consumption of junk food-which result in heart attack, diabetes, stroke, cancer, lung disease, or liver disease. Even his depiction of accidents suggests an excess of external stimulation that distracts us from paying more attention to what is at hand. With these and other recent works, Birk joins the ranks of the illustrator-commentator printmakers (like Bellows, Hogarth, and Daumier) who, with wit and skill, reveal poignant aspects of society through visual imagery. (right: Sandow Birk Heart Attack, 2005, intaglio print with chine collé on Japanese gampi backed by Somerset white paper)

Sandow Birk created the prints for the SDMA exhibition at the Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center in Makawao, Maui, Hawaii, where he is working closely with master printer, Paul Mullowney, to create etchings that simulate the rich tones and gradations and blacks that characterize the Bellows lithographs.

Born in Detroit in 1962, Birk received a BFA from the Otis Art Institute of Parson's School of Design. He has been featured in solo exhibitions throughout California, including at the Koplin del Rio Gallery in Los Angeles (2003), and has a forthcoming show opening in late May at PPOW Gallery in New York. Birk was also included in Made in California: 1900-2000 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2000). He is a recipient of the J. Paul Getty Fellowship for Visual Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts travel grant to Mexico.

The Museum's annual Contemporary Links series commissions noted contemporary artists to respond to works in the San Diego Museum of Art's collections. The series debuted in 2003 with Regina Frank's memorable performance and installation, Whiteness in Decay, a work inspired by Juan Sánchez Cotán's Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber. In 2004, the Pakistani-born artist Shahzia Sikander responded to a display of eighteen paintings from the Museum's Edwin Binney 3rd Collection of South Asian art in the thought-provoking mixed-media installation, Flip Flop.


(above Sandow Birk, Diabetes Mellitus, 2005, intaglio print with chine collé on Japanese gampi backed by Somerset white paper, 30 x 22 inches (plate sizes 22 x 17 inches) © San Diego Museum of Art. Gift of the artist)


Text from the gallery brochure for the exhibition:

Sandow Birk begins Leading Causes of Death in America, his suite of eleven etchings, with a cover page featuring a vanitas still life where a skull is the centerpiece for a host of objects from daily contemporary life, ranging from cell phones to fast food soda containers. In composition, style, and subject type this image references a genre of painting popular in seventeenth-century Flanders and Holland, which in turn influenced nineteenth-century American still-life painting. The cover page sets the tone for what is to follow, both in terms of its vernacular references and its borrowing from earlier works of art, a strategy that Birk has consistently deployed in his paintings and graphic works for more than fifteen years. Like a medical anthropologist, he outlines the subcultures of unhealthy American life, focusing on why we die by drawing on current research on disease trends. The leading causes of death in America add up to a saga that implicates us as the progenitors of our own demise, which places the individual at the center of his or her own fate. Could we hope that Birk's images will jolt viewers into ceasing their dangerous negative behaviors-excessive drinking, smoking, overeating, compulsive consumption of junk food, or other bad habits-that may lead to death by disease, whether it be heart attack or stroke, diabetes or cancer? Or prompt us to control AIDS and even accidents by being more responsible in our actions?

Perhaps these images can be understood as a twenty-first-century morality play. In writing about William Hogarth (1697-1764), an artist who has influenced Birk, art historian Jenny Uglow suggests that, "Hogarth saw his art in terms of the stage, of human actors engaged not only in comedy and tragedy, but in the muddled morality play of daily life."[1] I suggest that we can read Leading Causes in this way as well.

Created in response to several images from the more than one hundred lithographs in the San Diego Museum of Art's (SDMA) collection by the American artist George Bellows (1882-1925), Birk's etchings continue a tradition long rooted in this country. As Marianne Doezema has written about his artwork from the nineteen-teens, "Bellows surely recognized-that paintings of 'what is real' attracted attention. Getting in touch with 'the real,' in fact, was something of a national compulsion. In part, it was a reaction against the inertia of middle-class life and culture. If millions of city dwellers were not sufficiently cognizant of the dull blandness, the meaninglessness of their daily routines, the literary and popular press reminded them of society's spiritual as well as physical decay and of the need for revitalization."[2]

In working between historically grounded references and observation of human behavior within a social context, Birk takes up Bellows' mission in contemporary terms. Both artists depict the "real truth" as a not-so-pretty picture by portraying realities, which themselves are influenced by mass-media depictions. The process by which Birk achieves his imagery is also in keeping with Bellows' approach to the graphic arts, as both recognize the value of quoting themes from earlier social commentator/illustrators. For Heart Attack Birk appropriates elements from Bellows' Counted Out, First Stone (1921) and Honoré Daumier's (1808-1879) Rue Transnonain, le 15 avril, 1834 (1834), transposing the subjects found in these historical works to contemporary themes with acute sensitivity to vernacular attitudes. The figural composition is derived from the Bellows print. The paramedic figure takes the role, position, and posture of the boxing referee, and the tearful woman's pose is derived from the standing boxer who rubs his face with his boxing glove. The man having a heart attack has been transposed from the man massacred in his own apartment in the Daumier lithograph, and the room's interior follows the contours of its composition. In his altered composite copies, Birk makes use of "real" themes as well as traditional compositional conventions, carefully updating selected source imagery that depicts the human body as vulnerable to abuse, pain, and death. Other works by Birk have a looser affiliation with the Bellows prints, and are not as exacting in their adaptation. In Suicide a lonely man stands on the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge. It reminds us of a compositional strategy Bellows commonly used in landscape paintings such as Rain on the River (1908). In these works both artists strive for a dramatic representation of a singular view using an above-to-below vantage point where an urban river is central for achieving a sense of loss.

The success of Leading Causes lies in how it resonates with the world we see around us. The girls eating chips and drinking Cokes while strolling the urban streets in Diabetes are all too familiar images from our own lives; we recognize many of the characters in other episodes of this saga as well. By placing the words "Maui, Hawai'i" on one of the girl's T-shirts, Birk makes reference to the place where he created this suite of etchings, thereby inserting a memento of his own experience.[3] His interests parallel those researchers and journalists who believe that it is important to portray "truth" based on actual events and that this "telling" is a basis for self-reflection, which has the possibility of effecting social change.

Birk's visual language also conjures up popular contemporary graphic novels by artists such as Harvey Pekar and Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez who wittily depict ordinary people's everyday lives.

This suite of intaglio prints are the trial proofs for the edition. They were created at the Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center in Makawao, Maui, Hawaii, in winter/spring of 2005 in collaboration with master printer Paul Mullowney to simulate the rich tones, gradations, and blacks that characterize the Bellows lithographs.

Betti-Sue Hertz
Curator of Contemporary Art
San Diego Museum of Art



1. Jenny Uglow, Hogarth: A Life and a World (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997, p. 130

2. Marianne Doezema, "The 'Real' New York" in The Paintings of George Bellows, exh. cat. (Fort Worth: Amon Carter Mukseum, 1992), p.106.

3. Reference to place, and Birk's experience of it, has been prevalent in earlier series, such as the Prisionation (2000-2001) paintings.



Sandow Birk was born in Detroit in 1962 and raised in Seal Beach, a small coastal town south of Los Angeles in southern California, where, as a teenager he began surfing, a life-long passion. He attended Otis Art Institute of Parson's School of Design in Los Angeles, which included a semester of study abroad in Paris and Bath, England. He then left school, spending two years in Rio de Janeiro working as the art director for the Brazilian edition of Surfer Magazine. Subsequently that he returned to Otis and received his B.F.A. in 1988. Birk currently lives in Long Beach, California. Solo shows include Dante's Paradiso, P.P.O.W., NY (2005); Dante's Purgatorio, Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco, CA (2004); Dante's Inferno, Koplin del Rio Gallery, LA (2003); Prisonation, Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, Santa Barbara, CA (2001); and Smog and Thunder: Historical Works from the Great War of the Californias, the Laguna Art Museum, Laguna Beach, CA (2000). He is the recipient of a J. Paul Getty Fellowship for Visual Arts (1999), the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship (1997), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1995), and a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1995).

Sandow Birk: Leading Causes of Death in America is the third in the SDMA series Contemporary Links organized by Betti-Sue Hertz, curator of contemporary art. Participating artists are commissioned to create new works in response to a work or works from the Museum's collection. (right: Sandow Birk, Chronic Liver Disease and Cirrhosis (Drinking), 2005, intaglio print with chine collé on Japanese gampi backed by Somerset white paper, 30 x 22 inches (plate sizes 22 x 17 inches) © San Diego Museum of Art. Gift of the artist)


RL editor's note: For more information on George Bellows please see an online exhibition from the San Diego Museum of Art.

For more information on Flip Flop, please see "Shahzia Sikander: Flip Flop" in absolutearts.com. and the Museum's web page for the exhibit. The artist also has a web site.

Also see four videos on the art of Shahzia Sikander in PBS's two-season television series Art-21, Art in the Twenty-First Century. The welcome page explains that the series is "the only series on television to focus exclusively on contemporary visual art and artists in the United States, and it uses the medium of television to provide an experience of the visual arts that goes far beyond a gallery visit. Fascinating and intimate footage allows the viewer to observe the artists at work, watch their process as they transform inspiration into art, and hear their thoughts as they grapple with the physical and visual challenges of achieving their artistic visions." The Art-21 web site contains video clips relating to each of the 37 featured artists including Laurie Anderson, Margaret Kilgallen, Sally Mann, Raymond Pettibon, Martin Puryear, Collier Schorr and Kiki Smith.

The Art:21 series and its companion materials answer the following questions: who are today's artists?; what are they thinking about?; how do they describe their work? and why do they do what they do? The Season One and Two home videos are two sets with four hours each. Viewers meet "a diverse group of contemporary artists through revealing profiles that take viewers behind the scenes-into artists' studios, homes, and communities -- to provide an intimate view of their lives, work, sources of inspiration, and creative processes." Representational as well as abstract artists are featured in the videos. The Emmy nominated Season One video set features 21 artists and is divided into four general themes spanning four hours on two separate tapes. Season Two of the series features 16 engaging artists and is divided into four general themes spanning four hours on two tapes.

rev. 8/9/05

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