"When you read it," says artist Sandow Birk of Dante's Inferno, the great work of Western literature he has recently illustrated and textually updated, "the first thing is that it's so real. They talk about the actual scale of how big hell is, and there are maps of it, and it's so cool that he makes it like a real place, it sort of sucks you in. And it's so ingenious, the tortures — to carry weights, or not being able to drink water, all the different things that he invents, you know, people upside down with their feet on fire, it's so ingenious, and so horrible. And then you start to see how many levels there are, finding new parts every time you read through it. And then you think at the end, man, on top of all of this it even rhymes."
The Inferno: book one of the Comedy of Dante Alighieri From Florence, a.k.a. The Divine Comedy, the great masterpiece of just deserts, of punishment fit to crime, a guided tour of an afterlife where all debts are endlessly paid. Its well-hewn architecture of retribution has kept the book in circulation for 700 years, in spite of the fact that much of its text concerns turn-of-the-14th-century political and religious minutiae, wishful score settling and poetical self-promotion.
Set for release March 1, with an accompanying show at West Hollywood's Koplin-Del Rio Gallery, Birk's Inferno — rewritten, with Marcus Sanders, from half a dozen or so previous English translations — does not scant the Florentine local color, the Ghibellines and Guelphs, the popes and politicos; but it is special in several respects. It is, for one thing, set in a hell that resembles Los Angeles, and it makes use of metaphorical images that Dante, in the wildest of his wild dreams could not have imagined — crack addicts, Mexican farmworkers, dim sum. It throws Hitler and Manson and Bill Clinton (lust was his downfall) into the pits, along with South African president Thabo Mbeki, "the guy that declared publicly that HIV doesn't cause AIDS." It pictures the great monster Geryon as a helicopter, and the giant Antaeus as a huge inflatable Fred Flintstone. Devils wear "Will Work for Food" signs; priests and policemen ("hypocrites") march dismally toward the new downtown cathedral; a field of sinners broil in their own personal hot tubs; another, issuing from a fiery tomb before an ATM, "is holding a Frappuccino iced coffee," Birk laughs. "'Cause it's a little hot in there."
And, finally, it is a work of art unto itself, a $3,000, 100-copy limited-edition volume, produced by San Francisco's Trillium Press and containing 60 illustrative lithographs hand-bound in a red leather cover — "It's stamped and it's got a drawing on it," says Birk, "and it's got gold lettering and flames and stuff. It's supercool." (Chronicle Books will later release a slightly less supercool trade version.)
Cool -- not the cool of Miles Davis, but "cool" as a seventh-grader might say it — can be seen as the foundation of Birk's art, what could be called "The That Would Be Cool School" of art; Birk's work is marked by history, parody and play, with play being perhaps the most important element. Even his pictures of hell are fun. His watershed show was "In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works From the Great War of the Californias," which in more than 100 paintings, drawings and models depicted in heroic 19th-century style a modern war between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Last year it was expanded by Birk, director Sean Meredith and performance artist Paul Zaloom into a full-blown "mockumentary," with a cameo by KCET's own Virgil, Huell Howser; it screened at this year's Slamdance. He followed that with "Prisonation," a series of romantic images of California penal institutions, and an East Coast sequel, "Maximum Security: New York Landscapes," in Hudson River School style. (See the March issue of Harper's for an example.) The Inferno illustrations are closely modeled on engraver Gustav Doré's. His is a magpie/mockingbird aesthetic that can only work if the product outstrips the concept — when the pictures are good. And Birk's are.
We are drinking coffee in the artist's impressively well-organized multilevel studio/living space in a Latino neighborhood near downtown Long Beach; he moved here after losing his place in Hollywood, where he'd lived and worked for the last dozen years. Birk, who seems radically younger than the 40 he shyly admits to, grew up in Seal Beach, where he learned to surf, which is the other thing he really loves to do; when he traveled to Florence in preparation for tackling Dante, he took a map of Italian surf spots. But "I never really thought of myself as a Seal Beach kid," he says. "Even all through high school I was hanging out in Hollywood and going to see Black Flag and that whole thing, so I got out of the suburbs as fast as I could. Even living here in Long Beach is a bit weird."
His fingertips are stained with paint — he is finishing a painting of the Minotaur, for the Infernoshow, recast as downtown's famed Chicken Boy — but that is the only hint of mess. A pair of bicycles stand in one corner, next to a Vespa motorscooter. Mounted on the wall is a skateboard Birk pulls down for quick trips to the market, and a brace of surfboards are neatly filed along with canvases below the stairway, which is itself lined with Infernodrawings. A framed photo from the late Herald Examiner shows a young Birk in the mosh pit at a Clash concert; his T-shirt reads "Destroy." There are the diaristic retablos he painted on tin in Mexico City and Rio de Janiero — where he lived for four years, one of them on a Fulbright scholarship — and portraits of drag queens from his "Historical Works From the Stonewall Riots" and a large painting of Folsom Prison set in a tranquil Central Valley landscape. On the far back wall hangs the show's panoramic "centerpiece," a thing of red and gold and smoke and fire. "It's kind of a fictional view of urban America, as the setting for a further stroll through hell," says Birk, pointing, "and it has downtown L.A. back here, and the Hollywood sign, and sort of these freeways, and this is the entrance to hell through the parking lot, and then this here's the World Trade Center, the ruins of it, and that's the Golden Gate Bridge. So it's mostly L.A., but it's not specifically L.A."
Inferno is of a piece with Birk's other work in its application of art-historical art to the way we live now. For all the clever steals and references, he ultimately paints what he sees. After graduating from Otis-Parsons in 1988, he made pictures of surfers, "and then I started doing paintings about the city and gang wars. I was living on Adams Boulevard near Crenshaw, it was like the KDAY radio era, and I started doing all these paintings about that and the guys that I'd see in my neighborhood.
"People are always surprised — 'Oh, you're doing paintings about real events in L.A.' To me it seems like the most natural thing of all. I read the paper every day; I stay here all alone all day painting and listen to the radio. Of course I'm going to paint about O.J. and [Rampart Division police officer] Rafael Perez" — Birk did a suite of Hogarth-based paintings and etchings called The Rake's Progress — The Life and Times of Rafael Perez — "that's what I'm thinking about all day."
Birk and Marcus plan to take their project all the way to Paradise, with Purgatory already scheduled to be shown in San Francisco in January 2004. "We're talking about where to set [the remaining books]," says Birk. "My initial thinking is to make it always the same city, because heaven and hell can be found anywhere. One of my big fears was that people would leap to the conclusion that 'L.A. is hell,' which is just so cliché and simple. I love L.A., and I don't think L.A.'s hell at all.
"We're really proud of it," Birk says of his big book. "I wouldn't be surprised if it gets blasted by some scholar who's offended, like, 'Who the fuck are these kids who think they can mess with this thing?' But we're not saying read ours instead of; read ours also. Because it's more fun. And it's easier. And it has good pictures."
© Robert Lloyd 2003 and 2011