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Sandow Birk And Elyse Pignolet: Art vs. Trump

Special To Topanga Journal

The Los Angeles-based visual artist Sandow Birk knew that a Trump presidency would be horrific as soon as he heard the bumbling clown was running for President.

“I knew he would be an imbecile and a joke and an absolute horror if he were elected,” writes Birk, in an email. “Although I didn’t think he’d be as bad as he has been already.” 

Rick Paulas

By Rick Paulas

For Birk, living in this simmering waking nightmare worked itself out of his system while in residency in New Zealand. There, Birk collaborated with master printer John Pusateri to develop Trumpagruel, a series of hand-drawn images on lithograph stones currently on display at Track 16 Gallery in L.A.

Inspired by Gargantua and Pantagruel, the “misadventures of two bumbling giants” from the 16th century story by François Rabelais, in Birk’s version, the U.S. Commander-in-Chief is a billowing buffoon being spoon-fed by Fox News, a wailing baby to be comforted by an army of Republican sycophants, an ignoramus tweeting up a storm while the White House burns behind him. The finished product is as beautiful as it is grotesque, but more than that, it’s an odd consolation in our current chaotic era. 

“It felt encouraging that these women together could come forward and tell their stories. At the same time, I felt angry and frustrated that the men in these stories for decades were allowed to prey on these women unchecked.” Elyse Pignolet

By depicting our current reality through tropes from the distant past, there’s something comforting about the cyclical nature of this overwhelmingly blatant buffoonery, an echo of the great fools that have tumbled their way into history’s dustbins. Sure, Trump is a little different, in that he has weapons that can literally eradicate all life on the planet. But, still.   

More dreary—albeit, not aesthetically—is the art of Birk’s partner and collaborator for 15 years, Elyse Pignolet, also on display at Track 16. Pignolet has taken inspiration from the #metoo movement to design a series of ceramics that reference the stories that have been bravely shared and meticulously exposed over the past year.

I asked Pignolet what she felt like when these stories began to appear in the news.

“It was a bit of a shock at first,” writes Pignolet, in an email. “It felt encouraging that these women together could come forward and tell their stories. At the same time, I felt angry and frustrated that the men in these stories for decades were allowed to prey on these women unchecked.”

You can draw a pretty direct line from Trump’s election—particularly, after the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape—to the rise of the #metoo movement. It’s definitely a big part of the “Trump era,” whatever that’ll mean in history books. And yet, even now, it’s difficult to know how lasting of an impact the movement has had. 

Weinstein’s trial is far from a sure deal, and it’s unclear what Cosby’s sentencing will bring. Meanwhile, some of the other abusers exposed in the #metoo stories have already found new gigs, their sins of the past washed away with time. So it’s fitting that among the powerful shouts strewn across Pignolet’s ceramics like “Revolution” and “Had Enough,” there are also declarations of this being the “Same Old Shit.” Long after Trump’s removed from office, by ballot or impeachment, sexual harassment will still be a truth that must be addressed, from both sides of the aisle. 

It’s these two sides that are at the center of American Procession, the dramatic highlight of the Birk/Pignolet show. The work—called “a panorama of American icons and ideology”—is a set of dual 17-foot long woodblock prints hung on either side of the main gallery. Inspired by the “Procession of Princes,” a mural on Germany’s Dresden Castle, the work depicts the two paths that America has traveled through its history, and will continue to plod into the future.

On the left wall is The Left, exemplified by political figures (Lincoln, Obama), revolutionary activists (Jane Addams, MLK, Chomsky), artists (Nina Simone, Bruce Lee, Jello Biafra), and the nebulous concept of “We The People.” On the right is The Right, from slave traders to Brigham Young, Dick Cheney to Peter Thiel, and of course, Trump himself, carried on the shoulders of “the rich” and “the 1%.” In the gallery, the two sides march toward the great mess of progress, despair, ruin, and innovation that is, at its core, the mess of America. 

If the commentary in American Procession feels too organized, if the structure feels too neat, that’s not the fault of the artists. They’re merely mirroring the times in which they live; if you aren’t seeing the same division and radicalism, you must not be watching the news. Say what you will about the Trump presidency—and, really, say it, loudly, and all the time—it has led to a great distillation of ideologies on both sides of the political spectrum. 

Donald Trump, after all, is nothing but pure conservative thought without the sheen of respectability or concealment of its inherent racism. But the question that still remains without an answer is what, specifically, constitutes The Left?” Until that finds resolution, there may be no end to the art produced in response to the Trump presidency, if only because of the nightmare presidency will last that much longer.

Track 16 Gallery is now located at 1206 Maple Ave, #1005 on the 10th floor in Los Angeles.


Sandow Birk:

Elise Pignolet:

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