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Sandow Birk: American Qur'an

Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco
September 3 – October 31, 2009

It’s a popular art-world fantasy: the notion that using paint, video, or piles of cardboard to “engage with” or “interrogate” or “raise ironic questions about” some aspect of modern life is the moral equivalent of being genuinely controversial.

There’s little evidence, however, that artsy anti-capitalism has done much to change anyone’s thinking about war or health care. Perhaps that’s because most artists subscribe to the same brand of comfortably abstract leftishness as most gallery-goers. So even overtly political artworks tend to have a preaching-to-the-choir quality that’s the opposite of challenging.

Southern California artist Sandow Birk has managed to jump right over this dilemma with a project that addresses deadly serious issues without being politically reductive. What is especially powerful about Birk’s new series of paintings is his determined neutrality on a topic—religious beliefs, particularly those of other people—that can inspire some of humanity’s ugliest emotions.

Birk is in the midst of creating an illuminated manuscript of the Qur’an, inscribing every word of the Islamic holy text by hand, in English, and decorating each page with contemporary American scenes. The Qur’an has 114 suras, or chapters, ranging from a few lines to multiple pages of text, and Birk has so far illuminated a little over a third of them.

Sandow Birk,
Sandow Birk, "American Qur'an/Sura 97-98-99" (2008). Gouache and ink on paper, 1 panel, 19 x 27 inches framed. Image courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Fifteen suras, a total of 28 paintings on paper, each 16 by 24 inches, are on display at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, while another 15 suras are in a parallel show at Koplin del Rio in Birk’s home base of Los Angeles. A third show is planned at P.P.O.W. in New York sometime next spring. When completed, Birk’s American Qur’An will total more than 300 pages.

The scale suits Birk’s taste for ambitious, immersive undertakings. His previous projects include illustrating all three volumes of Dante’s Divine Comedy, updating 17th-century engraver Jacques Callot’s Miseries and Misfortunes of War in a suite of large-scale woodcuts about America’s current Mideast misadventures, and painting dreamy landscapes showing California’s 33 state prisons and New York’s 15 maximum-security lockups.

Sandow Birk,
Sandow Birk, "American Qur'an/ Suras 80-81" (2009). Gouache, acrylic and ink on paper, 1 panel, 19 x 27 inches framed). Image courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Notwithstanding the millions of Muslims in the United States, nowadays the term American Qur’An has come to seem almost oxymoronic. Actually, whether Birk’s handiwork is a Qur’an is debatable. The images he has chosen to illustrate the text—pictures of typical U.S. urban and suburban scenes, of Americans shopping, working, going about their daily routines—violate the Muslim taboo against figurative depictions, regarded as a form of idolatry, in religious contexts. And in the view of many Muslims, even non-Arabs, only the original Arabic is the word of God as revealed to the prophet Muhammad; a translation of the Qur’an is only a shadow of the real thing.

To Birk, who has said he’s not an adherent of any religion, including the dilute Protestantism he grew up with, such considerations may be beside the point. He reportedly embarked on his Qur’an in 2004 after reflecting how ready Americans were to vilify the world’s largest religious denomination, even though most of us know little or nothing about it. Recreating the Qur’an in his own hand and illustrating it with scenes from his own part of the world was a way to learn about and reflect on Islam, and perhaps encourage a few fellow Americans to do the same.

None of this would be particularly interesting if Birk’s paintings, as paintings, didn’t go well beyond the novelty value of his premise. Fortunately, they do. These little works are charming, contemplative, and delightfully open-ended. They invite us to read chunks of the Qur’an—something I, for one, have never done before—and ponder their possible meanings. The paintings’ artful interplay of word and image is sometimes funny, often poignant, and always absorbing.

For the headings and dense blocks of writing, Birk uses a graffiti-inflected alphabet that recalls Arabic script with its sharp points and curving swashes. He decorates the text with delicate rosettes and arabesques (as we in the West call them) that evoke illuminated manuscripts, Christian and Islamic, from a thousand years ago.

The images that surround the texts are forthrightly contemporary, however, painted in a slightly cartoonish, unabashedly illustrative, and decorative style. Sometimes the connection with the text is direct. In Sura 65, “Divorce,” a gloomy man leaning on a pickup truck on one side of the page looks across to an unhappy woman, pregnant and with a toddler in tow, on the other. Suras 80, “He Frowned,” and 81, “The Overthrown,” are surrounded by a bustling supermarket check-out line rendered in jewel-like colors. “So let man consider his food,” the text advises, but the people here look weary and numb, oblivious to the miracle, the mixed blessing, of our abundance.

Elsewhere the link between image and text is more obscure, perhaps more personal. Sura 61 shows a political convention, spangled with blue balloons and red-and-white-striped placards. Is the relevant line, “It is hateful to God that you say that which you do not do”? Or what about Sura 68, “The Pen,” with a hoodied graffitist perilously hanging off the side of an overpass he’s tagging—was it inspired by the sentence “By the pen and what you wrote, you are not, by the grace of the Lord, insane?”

Sura 4, “Women,” is one of the longest and ranges far more widely than the title indicates, covering protocols for both men and women for everything from inheritance to prayer. Birk spreads it across eight panels, each showing the front of the same bland municipal building. But in each panel the season, time of day, and events pictured are different: a veteran’s funeral in one, a press conference in another, a wedding, skateboarders cavorting in the empty parking lot at dusk. In the final panel there are no people, just snow and night and a rising moon. How all this connects to the text is mysterious, but the succession of images is lovely and sad.

America’s wars in the Muslim world haunt many of the paintings. Sometimes war-making is foregrounded, as in Sura 105’s camouflaged soldiers accompanying a tank on desert patrol (“Did you see how your Lord treated the troops with the elephant?” the text warns). Sometimes it’s almost subliminal, like the “Support the troops” decal on the “Divorce” dad’s truck.

The most direct allusion to the unavoidably controversial aspect of American Qur’An is in Sura 44, “Smoke,” which includes the line, “But expect a day when the sky will bring forth a smoke which will overwhelm the people—this is a painful punishment.” The sura goes on to promise that sinners will face “the anguish of burning despair” in the afterlife while the pious will find themselves “among gardens and springs” with “companions pure and beautiful to the eye”—the maidens that, in some readings of this passage, supposedly await jihadist suicides. The two paintings of this sura show, on the bottom of the page, a crowd of gesturing, frightened, horrified people, and on the top, a grim plume of black smoke pouring out of one of the two World Trade towers, which has just been struck by the first plane. It is a troubling and uncomfortable painting, precisely because it presents a vision of good and evil without specifying which is which.

No wonder that Birk and his gallerists were worried that his paintings might provoke Muslim anger and even violence. The risks this art takes are not merely a figure of art-speak. But according to gallery staff, there has been no trouble and several Muslim visitors have expressed gratitude for Birk’s efforts. The only hostility has come from right-wing American blogs, which have greeted news of the American Qur’An with comments such as “Stop this pandering to Muslims” and a proposal to improve the paintings by using them for target practice.

What’s challenging about these paintings is not that they take a stand for or against U.S. policy or Islam or tolerance, but that they refuse to do so. Instead they ask us to look and read and wonder. They recognize that simple belief and, likewise, simple unbelief are tragically inadequate to one of life’s greatest conundrums: how very differently each of us sees the universe we all share. These little paintings will not change the world, but they invite us to think about it a bit less simplistically.


Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2009

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