Sandow Birk has generated a striking body of political satire over the past 20 years, presenting sharp commentaries that often build off classical works. Our fraught political atmosphere has provided Birk with ample fodder. Among Birk’s recent output are a suite of 11 lithographs,The Horrible & Terrible Deeds & Words of the Very Renowned Trumpagruel; the fourth etching in his ongoing Imaginary Monuments series; and a triptych woodcut, American Procession, done in collaboration with his wife, ceramic artist Elyse Pignolet.
The lithographs reference François Rabelais’ 16th-century pentalogy, The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, and Honoré Daumier’s later skewering of King Louis Philippe as Gargantua. Birk shows POTUS 45 as an oversized baby, wailing in a diaper and baring his bottom. Rarely pictured without a smartphone or two, he is typically surrounded by suit-clad minions bearing tails, horns, batwings and chicken legs. Their attention jumps between swelling bags of cash and their infantile leader. In one image, they spoon-feed him at a table overrun with slugs.1
Proposal for a Monument to the Declaration of Independence (and a Pavilion to Frederick Douglass) continues hisImaginary Monuments series, begun with the oversized drawing Monument to the Constitution of the United States (2007), made as part of an Artist Research Fellowship with the Smithsonian.2 In this etching, Birk adds two new monuments to the National Mall: one displaying the complete text of the Declaration of Independence, the other bearing Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, popularly known as “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” The first takes the form of a colonnaded tower, with one broken side, where a slab containing Thomas Jefferson’s redacted text denouncing slavery hangs, shackled to a metal overhang. Douglass’s speech, which reprimands the Declaration for its shallow egalitarianism, is carved into a top-heavy biomorphic structure. America’s failure to live up to its stated ideals is also evident in the surrounding details: at left, two visitors wearing MAGA hats and Confederate flag shirts examine a smartphone by a trunk labeled “Old Lynching Tree,” and at right, a father and his son gaze at Douglass’s words, as interested in a calm family outing as they are in Douglass’s call to action. The two pairs coexist quite easily around Birk’s monumental depiction of American injustice. A slave-auction block sits on the ground between them.
The triptych woodcut frieze American Procession alludes to a 334-1/2-foot-long porcelain mural, Der Fürstenzug (Procession of Princes, 1872/1907), in Dresden. In the left and right panels, Birk and Pignolet replace princes with political figures from American history, arrayed roughly according to political leaning. The central panel features a crumbling monumental arch adorned with the HOLLYWOOD sign, a cell phone tower and a satellite TV dish. Below, a flimsy Capitol building façade is propped on a wagon surrounded by detritus, including the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Birk and Pignolet illustrate the outcome of the bifurcated American political system, showing figures from both sides marching toward the dystopian landscape at center.
- See sandowbirk.com/paintings/trumpagruel for images of the complete suite.
- Now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.