Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
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.
“Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants—11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data—a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were…
he ownership of images has a long and nuanced legal history, which has evolved dramatically in recent years as cultural standards and photographic technologies have rapidly advanced
The show, which honors the 50th anniversary of an exhibition history once ignored, continues a series of projects documenting Wilmington’s contemporary art scene.
Renty and his daughter Delia. Renty was an enslaved African, kidnapped from the Congo, sold and forced into slave labor on the South Carolina plantation of B.F. Taylor
What is the relation between possessing a person, possessing their image, and dispossessing their progeny
As a scholar of African American history and photography whose work has focused on the status of violent images in museums and archives, I fully support the validity of Ms. Tamara Lanier’s claim and the amicus brief.
Two K-12 art teachers will each receive a $1,000 cash gift and an additional $500 to put toward classroom art supplies. Nominations are due October 31.
The daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor, Delia, Drana, Alfred, Jack, George Fassena, and Jem remained in an unused storage cabinet until 1975, when it was discovered by an employee of the Peabody Museum.
I am writing in support of the amicus curiae brief submitted by Professor Ariella Aïsha Azoulay of Brown University for the full restitution of the daguerreotypes of Renty Taylor and his daughter Delia, currently held by Harvard University, to their familial descendant, Tamara Lanier.
We cannot be indifferent to the long-lasting effects of photography. The photographs at the center of Lanier v. Harvard are relentless in making Renty and Delia Taylor work and perform as slaves. The pain inflicted on them has not ceased. Photography has the capacity to propagate harm, and we have the moral obligation to interrupt…