Sandow Birk, Incarcerated: Visions of California in the 21st Century

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Sandow Birk presents a complicated view of modern day California, utilizing a romantic style referencing Hudson River School artists, while depicting both beauty and desolation in the portrayals of California prisons and their neighboring landscape.

The Hudson River School was a mid-19th Century, American artistic movement of landscape painters, highly influenced by romanticism, its individualism, and glorification of both the past and nature. In utilizing such a style, Birk is able to drastically juxtapose his subject matter—California state penitentiaries—with the grandeur of American individualism that the style references. In addition to his use of statistics for each penitentiary, as well as the conversations he had with inmates during his research for the show, his work sparks a loud commentary on the US prison system.

Despite being shown more than 15 years ago, Birk’s examination into the system of incarceration is still massively relevant to modern day California, and the US as a whole. Beautiful as his works are, they point to the convoluted system that not only incarcerates millions but allows numerous businesses to profit off of cheap inmate labor.

Birk’s work speaks to the role contemporary art plays in our society as a vessel for commentary and a motivator for progress and change. With paintings and prints depicting magnificent landscapes contrasted with imposing prisons, his poignant works seek to bring awareness to and prompt discourse about the issues concerning the American prison system, as well as its impact on millions of incarcerated individuals and their families.


Produced in conjunction with the exhibition at SBCAF titled INCARCERATED: VISIONS OF CALIFORNIA IN THE 21ST CENTURY Paintings and Prints from the PRISONATION Series by Sandow Birk, on display July 7 - August 19, 2001.

SOFTCOVER, 64 pages, 46 photographs and images of prints and paintings, L x H 10” x 8”