The ongoing rivalry between Los Angeles and San Francisco is a matter of public record, and thanks to painter Sandow Birk, it's also a matter of art. A current L.A. resident and monthly visitor to our city by the bay, Birk is in a unique position to comment on this long-standing opposition and was inspired enough by it to produce a body of work that envisions a fictional war between the two metropolises. Composed of faux posters, military portraits, and battle tableaux, the "In Smog and Thunder Series -- Historical Works From the Great War of the Californias"pokes fun at the enmity between Fog Town and Smog Town, but it's also a "joke about history paintings and history itself," Birk explained during a recent conversation. Emulating traditional painters like Francisco Goya and Jacques Louis David, Birk parodies the grandiosity of patriotic war paintings with his own personal take on the style, right down to the flowery language found in many museum catalogs: "A struggling actress from Fresno, with nothing more notable on her résumé than a bit part in a failed soap opera, would mount a dramatic mobile assault."
Though Birk lives in the so-called City of Angels, he insists he's not biased. He does believe the conflict is primarily one-sided; he started the project as a response to San Franciscans' vehement aversion to their southern sister. "People would start hassling me about how L.A. sucks, and ask, 'How can you live there? People down there are all fake.'" Most of us might not like his conclusion -- "I think San Francisco's just jealous" -- though Birk realizes it's not entirely that simple. "It's a complicated thing," he said. "That's how I started this idea of having a fake war, but it's developed and become about real California issues."
The series has been an ongoing project since 1998, and Birk's latest addition, "Homefront," continues to mine the same vein. Twenty-six new posters challenge the historical truth of past war paintings and the ability of art to document history objectively. Using the imaginary skirmish as a metaphor to comment on Golden State matters, Birk addresses the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, racial issues, the LAPD scandals, and current social concerns. Remember the Haight, for example, illustrates a familiar sight -- an unkempt teen with skateboard and change bucket, saluting from a pile of beer cans. Similarly, What Did You Do in the War? is based on World War I artwork, but its content is purely contemporary: A hipster father responds to his kid's questions by smirking and remembering his rowdy combat days.
"Homefront," which opens June 20 at 111 Minna Gallery, will be followed by "More From the Homefront Series," opening in July at the Catharine Clark Gallery. The full exhibit will be on display June 29 through Aug. 11 at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. The museum show will give the best overview of Birk's dry humor and satiric wit, displaying more than 100 pieces from the series, along with supplemental materials such as a reissued catalog and fictional text panels that further challenge an artist's role in establishing history.