“In Smog and Thunder”: Sandow Birk’s “half-terrifying, half-absurd scenarios” about the Great War between L.A. and San Francisco

By on May 27, 2016

You’ll find In Smog and Thunder: The Great War of the Californias under the Comedy section over on our Night Flight Plus channel, because this is a satirical mockumentary about a civil war between two California rivals, Los Angeles and San Francisco — aka “Smogtown” vs. “Fogtown” — but we’re putting it under the Art section here on the Night Flight blog because it was entirely based on 120 paintings, propaganda posters and etchings by Southern California-based artist Sandow Birk.

The LA Times said about this mockumentary, “Birk’s half-terrifying, half-absurd scenarios are eerie reminders of Southern California’s ongoing flirtation with apocalypse.”

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“In Smog and Thunder: Surprise Strike from the Sea,”  Oil and acrylic on canvas. 34 x 57 inches, 1997. Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

In the late 80s, Birk — who grew up in Seal Beach, California, located in the westernmost corner of Orange County, about thirty miles from downtown L.A. — was living in L.A.’s Crenshaw District, in an illegal storefront, where he saw first-hand what was happening in the neighborhoods dealing with gangs and graffiti, and hassles with cops. He worked as a bouncer at the Greek Theatre by night, and during the day he painted, and installed paintings at galleries and he also worked in a bakery.

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Sandow Birk

After the L.A. riots (April 29 – May 4, 1992), Birk was inspired to depict urban strife and conflict and social issues in his works, dealing with topics — such as immigration and over- development — which are central to life in Southern California.

His large canvas paintings, inspired by the masterworks he’d seen in European museums and what he’d learned while traveling in Latin American countries — he’d studied painting at Museu de Arte Moderna and Parque Lage in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, took a semester’s worth of classes at the American College in Paris and Parson’s School of Design in Paris, and studied for a semester at the Bath Academy of Art in England — began to show what happened to regular citizens ho were suddenly caught up in war on their streets.

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“Pres. George Bush Visiting the Scene of the Riots in Los Angeles,” Oil on canvas. 53 x 64 inches, 1992.

He began to see people like Rodney King as heroes (King’s videotaped beating by L.A. police officers, following a high-speed car chase on March 3, 1991, sparked the L.A. riots when the police officers who were charged in the case were acquitted).

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“The Bashing of Reginald O. Denny,” Oil on canvas. 36 x 48 inches, 1992.

In ’96, Birk spent a month in San Francisco, living with a friend, painting and hanging out, while his work was being exhibited in the Catherine Clark Gallery, located in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill Neighborhood, and he met a lot of locals who would hassle him simply because he lived in L.A. At first, Birk has said it was comical, but after awhile it became annoying to hear their comments about his hometown.

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He began to think about what might happen if the people of L.A. invaded San Francisco in a statewide civil war, and then began to paint scenarios that were send-ups of the 19th century Romantic paintings, led by fictional generals with names that sounded like they came out of history books, like Major General Juan Gomez de los Angeles, who led his Southern troops in an an offensive against the Bay Area, launching an attack in a “Battle for the Mission” District.

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“Portrait of Gen. Juan Gomez de Los Angeles (The Battle of San Francisco),” Oil on Canvas, 32″ x 24″, 1995.

He came up with humorous backstories to accompany what he was showing, like the fact that Gomez lost his virginity in an unsatisfying manner in San Francisco at a Grateful Dead concert and had despised the city ever since.

Birk’s paintings and the stories imagined San Francisco rebuilding after Gomez’s initial attack and re-commissioning the large San Francisco Navy, which then sets sail for a retaliatory attack on L.A. from the sea, surprising the citizens of L.A., who suffer great losses. Birk had key battles being fought at the Getty Museum of Art, which sits overlooking a freeway pass. The San Fernando Valley, which had recently seceded from Los Angeles, is laid to waste.

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In 2000, Birk collected more than 120 pieces together for a series called “In Smog and Thunder: Historical Works from the Great War of the Californias,” depicting Birk’s fictional war between the people of San Francisco and those living in Los Angeles.

The series — originally shown at the Laguna Art Museum, curated by Tyler Stallings — included more than 120 large-scale historical-looking paintings, along with additional drawings, propaganda war posters, topographical maps, ship models and silly portraits of imaginary military figures.

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“Down with Hollywood,” Acrylic on Paper, 42″ x 30″, 1998/”SF…You’re Next” (Rafael Perez),” Acrylic on Paper, 42″ x 30, 1998.

Birk’s In Smog and Thunder art exhibit broke attendance records the Laguna Art Museum, and the audio tour that he and Paul Zaloom — a puppeteer, performance artist and star of the Emmy-winning educational TV show “Beakman’s World,” a cult favorite among many adults — created for the exhibit was the catalyst for the film’s screenplay, which pokes some good-natured fun at war documentaries, like those directed by Ken Burns, while also taking aim at America’s pop culture society.

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“In Smog and Thunder: The Great Battle of Los Angeles,” Oil on canvas. 64 x 120 inches, 1998. Courtesy of Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

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“In Smog and Thunder: The Battle of San Francisco,” Oil on canvas. 84 x 84 inches, 1996.

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This mockumentary-style film — nearly 47-minutes long — was directed by Sean Meredith and co-produced by Birk and Zaloom, who provides the voiceover narration we hear about the conflict involving over 3 million Californians in combat — brother against sister, biker against surfer — which resulted in the deaths of more than 20,000 combatants.

The 2003 film also has a cameo by the late Huell Howser, the one-time host of the seminal Southern California public television show, “California’s Gold,” who became an icon with his “golly” attitude and genuine interest in California’s landmarks.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.