Geographies of Detention in Riverside

This is an exhibition at the California Museum of Photographyin Riverside CA on the theme of incarceration, linking the “detention center” at Guantanamo with the 33 prisons spread across the remote regions of California.  A featured element of the show is the “Prisonation” series of painting by Sandow Birk. He did an oil painting of each prison in the Romantic landscape style of Bierstadt, Church and others.  At first glance we see an idyllic world of nature.  On second glance we see its conversion to a space of incarceration. What pioneers traversed, prisoners don’t. They are out of sight, hidden behind the prison walls and surrounding landscape.  Most of the paintings appear inside 19C frames that Birk found at flea markets and they are 24 – 36″ across, give or take, but a very large painting of San Quentin is on the second floor of the de Young museum in San Francisco where most visitors pass it by as just another example of idyllic landscapes, like so many of the other paintings with which it shares the floor but which are detonated from the inside as Birk undercuts the enchantment with the wary eye of one who sees a modern truth beneath a old delusion.

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The accompanying flyer annouces their panel discussion on the show and presents one of the most haunting paintings in the series: Pelican Bay.  The blue tones and ghostly absences give it a deeply disturbing edge.  I’ve had to put it in my study, behind my desk where I can see it readily but not constantly.  it is far too strong for the living room in its phantasmatic portrayal of incarceration behind watch towers, chain link fence, water sprinklers and the verdant world of green.