Sandow Birk’s exhibition at PPOW Gallery, Triumph of Hate, examines dark strains in the culture and politics of the United States, including Trump, gun violence, white supremacy, and greed. Birk’s body of work is unusual in that its explicit politics don’t read as overly didactic — a difficult line to walk successfully. Triumph of Hate is comprised of three distinct bodies of work: a series of satirical prints about Trumpian exploits, graphically violent paintings examining recent events, and a triptych of woodblock prints representing the battle of good versus evil throughout American history.
“The Horrible & Terrible Deeds & Words of the Very Renowned Trumpagruel” (2017) was inspired by François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, which used crude stories of the misadventures of two giants to shock and satirize. In Birk’s prints, Trump is a fat, fleshy giant with a combover. He is often surrounded by small men with devil horns who do his bidding. In one work they struggle to carry him, as he yawns widely, wearing only underwear with a monogrammed “T” — a giant baby. In another, the devil-men feed the beast with large spoons, while he holds two cell phones. A “FOX” sign in the background suggests that what he’s being fed is adoration and favorable news. In the most crude print, Trump stands naked, his giant buttocks larger than the Capitol Building behind him, as the small devil-men gather behind and gaze at his rear end. Trump is shitting on the country; his minions are worshipping his ass — Birk’s points are clearly made.
The stated theme of Triumph of Evil is most evident in the exhibition’s eight paintings, which contain little humor or satire. “The Triumph of Death (Las Vegas)” (2018) shows the aftermath of the 2017 Route 91 Harvest music festival shooting. A group of lifeless figures have been thrown into a cart, piled atop one another. The ground is strewn with plastic bottles and bodies, an equivalency that reduces people to detritus. Palm trees and the Vegas skyline ground this carnage in a quintessentially American locale. “The Triumph of Fear” (2017) is a similarly complex work, containing imagery of Black Lives Matter protestors being gunned down by police; a man being lynched; skeletons riding atop police cars waving a Confederate flag; military personnel throwing shackled prisoners off a bridge; and the Supreme Court justices standing quietly in the corner, a blindfolded and shackled Lady Justice sitting on the ground to their side.
The complexity of Birk’s canvases and their surfeit of action is reminiscent of paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries that depict historical, mythological, or religious scenes. These paintings had an agenda — the intended heroism of Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851) comes to mind —but Birk’s contemporary take on this genre is total nihilism. There is nothing redeeming in his scenes of violence — no heroes, no myths, no valiance. His upending of a genre of painting usually replete with heroism or moralistic messages adds a layer of art-historical intrigue, a reimagining of what history painting is in this moment.
In “American Procession,” three woodblock prints produced through a collaboration between Birk and artist Elyse Pignolet, the dark sides of the US are not necessarily victorious, but rather are locked in an unending battle against good. In color and form the work references the Fürstenzug (Procession of Princes) mural, an 1871-76 work at Dresden Castle, Germany that depicts the noblemen of Saxony. On one side of “American Procession,” princely figures including Abraham Lincoln, Florence Kelley, Gertrude Stein, Martin Luther King, Nina Simone, Cesar Chavez, Billy Jean King, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Barack and Michelle Obama, and Kamala Harris march. They hold signs reading “hands up don’t shoot” and “we love Obamacare.” This is the long-moral-arc-bending-towards-justice version of US history. On the opposing side, representations of enslaved Africans, Andrew Jackson, Robert Moses, J. Edgar Hoover, Strom Thurmond, the Koch Brothers, Donald Trump, and the wealthy, demonstrate a darker unfolding of the country that begins with enslavement and ends with the profit of a few at the expense of the many — a straight line of injustice. Unsettlingly, both takes on American history seem equally valid when laid out with such exacting visual equivalency.
This is great work for this time. It’s crude and violent, but done in the service of portraying the greed and brutality of its era. However, I am not sure that all of Birk’s art would survive a lack of context. It’s deeply grounded in knowledge of American politics, culture, and history. The only downside of avoiding heroes and myths is that the imagery becomes too precise to easily travel across time and place.