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In the early 14th century, Italian poet Dante Alighieri penned The Divine Comedy, an epic poem that chronicles his fictional journey through Hell, purgatory, and Heaven. Often considered the last great piece of medieval literature, Dante's masterpiece has inspired everything from Sandman comics to the latest album by the Brazilian metal band Sepultura.
California-based artist Sandow Birk stumbled on an aging copy in a used bookstore and decided to illustrate the poem using modern settings. The result is Sandow Birk's Divine Comedy, an exhibit of lithographs and paintings at Mesa Contemporary Arts.
Luckily, prior knowledge of Dante's original text isn't a prerequisite for enjoying the exhibit. I hadn't cracked his Inferno since college lit class, and even then, I relied heavily on Cliffs Notes.
From the start, Birk's images are enticing. The nine circles of Hell are riddled with writhing sinners forced to relive their sins of excess after death. In Ciacco and the Gluttons, corpulent corpses are piled on the ground, stuffing their faces with doughnuts, lattes, and McDonald's hamburgers. Sizzler's all-you-can-eat buffet looms in the background. It's a humorous image, but one that also makes me regret the burrito I downed on the way to the gallery.
Birk's Paradiso depicts a swirling baptismal rain falling atop a cityscape of glittering skyscrapers. Hundreds of beaming headlights dot the hilly terrain nearby. The artist's subtle use of golden highlights and his impeccably smooth brush strokes lend an ethereal quality to the piece. Those with a keen eye and a penchant for recognizing faces may spot familiar figures in the accompanying lithographs; the most obvious is Queen singer Freddie Mercury, who appears as a used-car dealer. It's another of Birk's witty, tongue-in-cheek commentaries.
The only disappointment I suffered during my visit stemmed from the awkward arrangement of the exhibit. Heaven was situated on the far wall, with Hell and purgatory on the left and right walls, respectively, making it difficult to take the journey in Dante's original order. This could possibly be due to the addition of a niche containing a clip of Birk's puppet film. Sadly, the best section of the movie, wherein we see the very naughty Francesca in flagrante delicto with her husband's brother, had to be edited for public viewing.
While Birk draws from international centers like New York, Tokyo and Mexico City, there's an inherent familiarity in the images that populate his landscapes. Take, for example, Inferno, a massive painting depicting Dante and Virgil at a precipice above the fires of Hell. A volcano looms in the background, spewing an oily black cloud over the remains of a city highway. Bridges are collapsed, sending dozens of painted cars plummeting into the crevasse.
It's a terrifying sight. But there's also a sense of comfort that comes from surveying the painting. Birk has planted familiar sights in the foreground to keep us from viewing Hell as an otherworldly place. Billboards announcing the latest sale at IKEA. Expired parking meters. A Wal-Mart sign that leaves me chuckling reads, "Abandon all hope ye who enter here," a passage taken directly from the original poem.
The most telling part of Birk's journey is the overlap between locations. Consumers with laptops, homeless wanderers, and fast-food chains are equally as present beneath the Tower of Babel as they are beyond the pearly gates. While Dante's narrative is about the journey to salvation, Birk's images carry a different message.
Heaven, or Hell, is just a state of mind.