Catharine Clark Gallery
Sandow Birk: Imaginary Monuments II
October 20—December 22, 2018
In his Imaginary Monuments II drawings, Sandow Birk continues to entice us with an intriguing view of history and politics. Following his 2015 Imaginary Monuments series, Birk depicts, in twelve large ink drawings, grandiose neoclassical-style monuments: mountains of columns, capitals and pediments, rendered in detail worthy of late-eighteenth-century antiquarian artists whose aesthetically preserved Roman ruins served as historical documents and meditations on the ravages of time. A decade ago, Birk, then artist-in-residence at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, was fascinated by the idealism of the Smithsonian’s founders, as recorded in documents he examined, yet bemused by the kitschy superficiality of the “tourist world” along the National Mall outside. The gap between theory and reality permeates these elephant-folio-scale drawings of an ideal city full of text-covered monuments, replete with tiny observers. Birk’s absurd utopian structures recall the captivating visionary architecture of the Napoleonic era buildings proposed by Boullée, Ledoux and Lequeu, but too colossal or fantastic to be built.
If Birk’s panoramic vistas and infinitesimal detail recall magnificent vanished civilizations, his titles and faux-engraved texts—celebrating the durability of logical fallacies, including whataboutism; countries bombed by the US; income equality; American sanctimony; and useless platitudes—subvert delusions of grandeur (as if we were now in that mood). Today, we cannot understand these impressive monuments to history and philosophy—and human ingenuity and idealism—without a measure of rueful irony. “Hiking in to the Monument to the Age of the World” (2018) portrays two pilgrims traipsing to a ruined column memorializing Archbishop James Ussher’s 1650 “The Annals of the World,” which, based on biblical calculations, assigned October 22, 4004 BC, around 6 p.m. as the date and time of Creation. The wealth of philosophic and religious references in “Clearing the Brush from the Temple of Unbelief” (2018)—Spinoza, Shelley, Nietzsche—shows that God is dead, again, and many are His eternally returning prophets.