Southern California has a thriving and eclectic fine arts scene, and the husband-wife team of painter Sandow Birk ('88 Fine Arts) and ceramicist Elyse Pignolet are two of the region's finest visual artists. Birk and Pignolet are notable for capturing the zeitgeist of California and the nation in clever and unique ways. Birk's In Smog and Thunder: The Great War of the Californias, which exhibited at the Laguna Art Museum in 2000 and Sonoma Art Museum in 2001, depicts an imaginary war between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles provides a grim and apocalyptic view of the City of Angels. Pignolet created the beautifully crafted "Paleta Cart," which was part of the Laguna Art Museum's 2013 Faux Real exhibition. Together, they have produced wondrous murals at locations such as an LAPD station in Boyle Heights, Calif., and the Avalon, Calif., lifeguard headquarters.
"I try to make works about topics that I'm interested in and that are important to me," Birk said. "I want to make artworks that mean something and have something to say about our times, and that I have an opinion about."
Among his diverse and extensive résumé, Birk's current exhibition, American Qur'an, may be his most provocative, powerful, and brilliant collection to date. The pieces are on view at the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) in Newport Beach, Calif. An accompanying hardcover book by the same name, featuring a preface by notable religion scholar Reza Aslan, is available through Liveright.
How did Birk, who is not Muslim, gain an interest in the Qur'an, Islam's holy book? "Through my surf travels, I realized that I had spent considerable time in Islamic parts of the world--I think I've made at least 10 extended trips to Islamic regions--and the experiences I had and the people I met and what I knew about Islam was completely different than what I was being told by the media," he explained. "So at some point I just decided to stop listening and to see what Islam was about for myself, and I just went out and bought a copy of the Qur'an and started reading it."
The exhibition, a project that took Birk nine years to complete, features more than 300 gouache paintings on which he hand-transcribed every word of the Qur'an using an L.A. graffiti-based font. His illustrations provide his vision of how the Qur'an verses apply to the contemporary Western World.
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