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Sandow Birk's deeply intense "Depravities of War" at First Street Gallery

Smoke blackens the sky. Men with guns point them at men without. Those who can flee, do -- but most lie dead or captured. "Occupation" is one of a series of large woodcut prints depicting the Iraq war as filtered through American media, currently hanging at Humboldt State's First Street Gallery. Sandow Birk's work expands eight feet wide, stretches four feet tall. Ten same-sized pieces fill, but don't overwhelm, the remaining gallery space. It's Friday and the only people in First Street are director Jack Bentley and a few HSU students preparing for the following night's Arts Alive! opening. In the quiet, a viewer has ample time and space to absorb the work.

In contrast, Saturday's opening manifested the usual giddy Arts Alive! crowd -- folks chatting over glasses of wine, squeezing past someone lingering at the artwork or reading the student-generated text. The juxtaposition unsettles, but is not entirely inappropriate. Culled from TV and YouTube moments, Birk's images illustrate how we remain both horrified by and distanced from such scenes. Woodcuts as a medium suggest a narrative, have a storybook quality that might even draw viewers to admire the craft before realizing the depth of what they're seeing.

Given the intensity of "Depravities of War," one might expect the creator of such scenes to smolder as well. But Birk exudes calm. (Or maybe the tranquility stemmed from our discussion taking place over Sunday morning pancakes, sunshine streaming through the windows, the promise of good waves lingering in the air. Birk is a lifelong surfer who later braved the 48 degree water before racing off to help judge the annual HSU student show.)

"Depravities of War" grew from conception to completion at Hui No`eau Visual Arts Center, "a tiny art school" in Hawaii where Birk collaborated with expert printmaker Paul Mullawey. Inspired by 17th century printmaster Jacques Callot's "Miseries and Misfortunes of War" -- which also shaped Goya's "Disasters of War" -- Birk, Mullawey and Birk's wife, artist Elyse Pignolet, used corresponding imagery from the Iraq War and spent months on the series, much to the chagrin of the school. Flights back to Hawaii and paper purchases prompted administrators to ask, "What are you doing? Why are we funding this? No one's going to want to see this."

Initially, the school proved right -- even for an artist of Birk's stature, finding a venue to display "Depravities of War" wasn't easy.

"We had to get people to see it," Birk said. "We had to justify it." They contacted dozens of galleries to no avail. Finally, four places accepted the show. "Now the snowball's rolling."

One of the early shows took place at Louisiana State University, where negative portrayals of America's Iraq occupation engendered enough controversy to occasion a panel discussion. A well-spoken "military guy" complained the show was one-sided, Birk said, alleging that the panels depicting scenes related to Abu Ghraib overemphasized the situation. Birk defended his choice, noting how those images dominated the news and were "a real turning point for American morale."

Callot's prints measure only about four-by-seven inches, the same size Birk planned to do. But Pignolet convinced him they needed to scale up. "So we just jumped in the car, went to Home Depot and bought the biggest piece of wood you could buy in Hawaii," Birk recalled. The process proved lengthy. Birk sketched out ideas, the team blew the sketches up at Kinko's, taped the copies to the plywood, carved, did test prints, carved some more, until at last a final print emerged. In the midst of what was supposed to be the final piece, news of Saddam Hussein's execution came on. The artists gathered around the computer, observing the death as recorded on a clandestine cellphone. "We were all standing there, watching," Birk said. "We knew we had to make another [print]."

Unique to First Street's show are student interpretations of each scene. Regarding "Execution," Jennifer Lavis writes, "The image contrasts the barbarism of an old-fashioned execution technique with the technology of today. The soldier in the left hand corner is recording a video of the execution with his camera phone. This image juxtaposes the old and new world when it comes to war: cell phones and lynching ... Birk expresses the fact that we only see glimpses of the war through various photos and video clips, and this creates a very 'black and white' view of the war in Iraq. We see a strong disparity between what is shown online ... and the self-censored stories carefully chosen by television news."

For "Detention," Lauren Marallo notes, "In the foreground of the print, the little black dog that appears so often throughout the series ominously sniffs out hidden citizens. In this image, the dog represents the relentless scouring of soldiers to discover their enemy. The dog can be read as a soldier on the United States side due to the fact that the dog does not appear to be from the streets: it has a collar on ... He appears to be a predator who remains loyal to the allies he sides with, uncovering his enemy."

The student observations pleased Birk. "They obviously spent a lot of time looking at each one," he said. "They saw things I was hoping someone would notice." They also extrapolated connections he hadn't thought of, he continued, such as the recurring dog. "That wasn't something I'd planned on doing." In fact, Birk wasn't even able to see the work in its entirety until months after finishing it. Making such large pieces in such a small space meant Birk's team could only put one up at a time. It wasn't until a showing in Cal State Long Beach's giant gallery room that he experienced the fullness of what he and his collaborators had achieved. With typical reserve, he called the moment, "rewarding."

Fortunately, Humboldt County residents can view "Depravities of War" without so much struggle. Even if you checked out the show during Arts Alive!, I encourage you to return during a quieter time. The pieces ask for, and deserve, a longer moment of contemplation. Birk's "Depravities of War" runs through May 16. First Street Gallery is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., at 422 First St., Eureka. Admission is free. For group tours, call ahead at 443-6363. More at humboldt.edu/~first.

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Jennifer Savage

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