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Maximum Insecurity: Dorsky Museum Shows Wry Twist on Landscapes

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NEW PALTZ -- The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz presents an exhibition of paintings by Sandow Birk, a California artist who combines classical technique with frank, sometimes brutal imagery. "Incarcerated," his show of landscapes surrounding maximum security prisons, will run from January 29 through March 15, 2003.

Included are recent paintings of many Hudson Valley penal institutions: Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg; Green Haven in Stormville; Downstate in Fishkill and Shawangunk in Wallkill. Each stark edifice is juxtaposed against a bucolic landscape of sweeping hills, majestic trees and dramatic, sunlit skies.

The works came out of a series, "Prisonation," (2001-2002) in which Birk made a systematic tour of California's infamous correctional institutions - including San Quentin, Folsom and Pelican Bay - portraying the watch towers and razor wire fences within glorious landscapes. After the California series, the New York City gallery Debs & Co. commissioned a similar set of New York State prison paintings, and the Dorsky show is culled from these.

A wry twist on technique informs much of Birk's repertoire. He first came to widespread prominence through his series of works on an imagined war between Fog Town (San Francisco) and Smog Town (Los Angeles). The L.A. Times hailed these caricatured panoramas as "a highly clever, meticulously realized sendup."

But the prison paintings have struck reviewers as a more sobering sociological critique. At first glance, they recall the works of Hudson River School and Luminist artists, evoking 19th century Transcendentalist naturalism, yet their subject matter represents a nadir of social degradation and failure. Birk's work is at once social commentary and an investigation into the evolution of American landscape painting.

The Samuel Dorsky Museum is open on Wednesdays from 1 to 8 p.m., and Thursdays through Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. Call 845-257-3844 for more information. To view a painting in this exhibition visit