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Sandow Birk: My SoCal Art History

"The Battle of Los Angeles", Sandow Birk, 1998. Oil on Canvas, 84" x 120". Courtesy of Koplin del Rio Gallery.

The history of art in Southern California isn't linear; it is a fluid, multi-angled continuum made from the personal experiences of many artists from myriad backgrounds. So to trace the trajectory of Southern California art, Artbound is creating a collective timeline comprised of the decisive events that shaped artists' creative development. We hope that in the space between these personal histories, an impressionistic view of Southern California's art history will come into focus.

Today we talk to Los Angeles artist Sandow Birk.

What Southern California events shaped you as an artist?

I can only answer this query by thinking about what events in Los Angeles art have been most influential to me, personally, as an artist in Los Angeles. So I've put together a list of different things that have definitively shaped myself and my own works. The list isn't in any real order of importance.

Los Angeles Riots | Photo: LAPL.
Los Angeles Riots | Photo: LAPL.

1. The Riots of 1992. I was living in a storefront studio in east Hollywood when the riots broke out, and my neighborhood was burning and lawless. It wasn't just the riots, but the whole of the events that led up to them and the outburst of the emotions throughout the city that were momentous. The riots changed the city and changed my own artworks. Suddenly Los Angeles was the center of the nation, for better or worse. There was the sense that we were living in momentous times, that we were at the heart of everything, that revolution was coming. It was a defining moment for the city in so many ways. If you lived in L.A. during those four days in April, you couldn't help but have been affected by them.

Nile Rodgers (left) gallery owner John Polchna (middle) David Lee Roth (right) | Photo: LAPL.
Nile Rodgers (left) gallery owner John Polchna (middle) David Lee Roth (right) | Photo: LAPL.

2. The Zero - One Gallery. In the late 1980's and the early 1990's, the Zero-One Gallery was seminal to the Los Angeles art world, although a lot of collectors and curators probably didn't even know about it. Run on the flimsiest thread of legality and business acumen by John Polchna, for two decades it was a place that nearly every artist passed through before moving on to other galleries. In all it's fuck ups and various locations - from a basement on Highland Ave. that often flooded, to a second floor set of rooms above Hollywood Blvd, and finally to its corner location across from Pink's Hot Dogs on Melrose and La Brea - the Zero-One was the underground of the underground, the starting place for artists and bands and parties and raves and drug deals and anything else. It was experimentation and freedom, where you hung your own show, painted the walls, but a trash can full of ice and Old Milwaukee beer and had a show. It was probably the most important gallery of those years. It was the Ferris Gallery of my generation.

Graffiti | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.
Graffiti | Photo: Drew Tewksbury.

3. HEX versus SLICK Graffiti Battle #2 at the Levitz Walls, San Fernando Rd, Glendale, for one weekend in January 1990. This was the rise of two greats of Los Angeles graffiti and the rise of graffiti as its own West Coast force. Battle #2 was a rematch of their earlier battle in the Belmont Tunnels in 1989. But it also can be seen as another example of Los Angeles art emerging as its own thing. Along with other ground-breaking graffiti world events such as the birth of Can Control Magazine, it was a seminal moment. If you were there, you felt things were blowing up in L.A. and that you were a part of something bigger.

4. COAGULA MAGAZINE. Born out of the brain and the punk rock aesthetic of Matt Gleason, it was a newspaper printed rag that was an aggressive, abusive, irreverent, scathing, nitpicking tirade of the entire art world as seen from the lofts and barstools of downtown L.A. First appearing in 1992, it was free and unabashedly saw Los Angeles as the center of the art world, mocking the New York mainstays and magazines with a new attitude and bold and brazen criticism of stalwart artists and stodgy galleries and dealers. It's no bullshit approach to art making and art writing and art thinking made you feel you were fighting a good fight when you confronted a blank canvas in your cheap studio.

Exhibit | Photo: LAPL.
Exhibit | Photo: LAPL.

5. Opening of MOCA and later the TC (Temporary Contemporary). The opening of a museum devoted exclusively to contemporary art was an inspiring thing for those in the trenches of the art scene. For a while MOCA was at the cutting edge and shows like "Helter Skelter" at the TC added to the feeling among young, struggling painters like myself that Los Angeles was rising, that the center of everything was here, that what we were making in our studios was important - even if no one was looking at it but other.

JUXTAPOZ Magazine | Photo: Juxtapoz Art & Cultural Magazine.

6. JUXTAPOZ Magazine. Founded in 1994, it was another part of the rising tide of events that made L.A. stand up as the most important city for young art in the United States. The Los Angeles art world was no longer a suburb of New York - it was different. And it was exciting to be here and be a part of it. So much of the struggle of being a young, emerging artist is that you work alone in a dirty studio struggling with yourself to make interesting, important artworks, and never knowing if what you're doing is worthwhile. But when events and magazines and shows come along that make it seem like you're part of a larger community of others working alone in dirty studios, it is very invigorating and encouraging.

Cocola | Photo: LAPL.
Cocola | Photo: LAPL.

7. Yee Mee Loo's, Al's Bar, Cocola, The Dresden.A big part of my formation as an artist in Los Angeles were the nights spent drinking in the dive bars of downtown and Hollywood. Most of my friends were artists and writers and didn't have to get up in the mornings to go to daytime jobs, so we spent most nights out drinking at art openings and carrying on at bars all over town. Some of the most important conversations I've had as an artist were the debates and critiques done on barstools. And definitely most of my best ideas for paintings and projects were re-discovered the next morning written on wadded up napkins and damp coasters. Yee Mee Loo's was a favorite in Chinatown, The Dresden and Smalls and Boardners and the Frolic Room in Hollywood, Al's Bar and Cocola downtown. I wouldn't be who I am or where I am today without those long evenings and those friends.

Ford-Brady | Photo: http://www.myspace.com/fordbrady.

8. Earl McGrath Gallery. In the early 1990's Earl McGrath lived above his gallery on Robertson Blvd in West Hollywood. Although not much of a salesman or a mover and shaker in the art world, his gallery was a crossroads of the famous, the wannabes, the blue chip, the hangers on, and the struggling artists and actors. Known for having a full bar and celebrities at his openings, Earl knew everyone and everyone knows Earl. His openings were not to be missed and Earl welcomed everyone, insulted them, joked with them and didn't sell much work. I worked for him for a couple of years and convinced him into giving me my first solo exhibit, a show of paintings on black velvet.

9. The Expansion of LACMA. LACMA's expansion with the addition of the Anderson Building in 1986 was impressive and inspiring to artists like me. We felt like our city was growing and becoming more important, even if it had nothing to do with the works we were making. It's continued expansion carries on that aspirational feeling and it's growing role in exhibiting cutting edge contemporary art makes it the cornerstone of the LA art scene.

10. Bergamot Station. The Los Angeles art scene has always had so many different "centers" to it that it has always felt sprawling and disconnected. From Downtown in the 1980s to the Santa Monica in the 1990s and Hollywood and West Hollywood and Culver City and beyond, its big and it takes a lot of time and effort to know what's going on where and when. But Bergamot Station and its opening in 1994 have been an anchor to the ebbs and flows of the city's art world. A pedestrian place in a motorized world, it's a relief. If the planned Metro stop is completed, it will probably remain an important part of the LA art world jigsaw puzzle for a long time to come, which is a good thing.

'Inferno'. Sandow Birk, 2003. Oil on Canvas, 72' x 120'. Courtesy of Koplin del Rio Gallery.
'Inferno'. Sandow Birk, 2003. Oil on Canvas, 72' x 120'. Courtesy of Koplin del Rio Gallery.

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