CULTURE- ART FEATURE- In our face: Birk's cutting commentary

A burning memory from my Vietnam-era childhood is of sitting with my father in our wood-paneled den as image after image of sweaty, battered soldiers and helicopters flashed across the TV screen. I once asked my mom if there had always been a war. "Land sakes, no, honey," she said, laughing. But after viewing Sandow Birk's staggering Second Street Gallery exhibition, The Depravities of War, I think my 5-year-old self was onto something.

"Important" is an adjective I loathe when discussing art, but I'm whipping it out here: This is an important show. Inspired by the etchings in 17th century French printmaker Jacques Callot's Miseries of War, Birk has created 16 mammoth woodcuts chronicling the U.S. war in Iraq.

"I took the compositions and re-imagined them in the war today," Birk explains. Because he lacked experience in printmaking, Birk first made pen-and-ink drawings and then traveled to the Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center in Hawaii, where he collaborated with master printmaker Paul Mullowney to transform them into woodcuts.

Each monumental 4' x 8' print consists of eight panels of Japanese mulberry paper tiled together and hand rubbed on an inked plywood sheet cut, chiseled, and burned from a blow-up of Birk's original drawing. The resulting black and white images—even when depicting the gut-wrenching horrors of Abu Ghraib—are jaw dropping in their gorgeous array of lines and textures. Birk and Mullowney's technique makes the images seem simultaneously contemporary and antique, effectively conveying that our modern moment is tragically nothing new. 

Even more impressive is the way Birk mirrors Callot's original prints. Although the smoking twin towers and oil company logos in the background of Birk's "Obsession" clearly tie the image to the present, the tree and sleeping dog at the army sign-up table are lifted directly from Callot's "Recruitment of Troops." Similarly, in " Desecration," Birk re-contextualizes yet echoes the precise composition of Callot's "Plundering a Large Farmhouse." And Birk's newly arrived prisoner on the left in "Humiliation" no longer sees the torture of Callot's "Strappado" but rather Lynndie England's finger guns pointed at naked Iraqis' genitals.

  In this day of sanitized news broadcasts, Birk uses the compelling beauty of his woodcut prints to force us to confront the Iraq War as the opposite of progress; like a broken record, we are endlessly repeating the cycle of war's ruinous inhumanity, destructive not only to our "enemy" but also to ourselves. 

Sandow Birk's "The Depravities of War" is on view at Second Street Gallery through April 12. Birk returns to Charlottesville March 28 to participate with writer Dave Griffith and composer Judith Shatin in a Festival of the Book discussion entitled "Depravity, Upheaval, and ‘The Good War.'" The event is scheduled for 6pm at SSG. 115 Second St. SE (in the Charlottesville City Center for the Arts). 977-7284.