Andrew Birk is a gringo. I don’t mention this as an insult—I’m one too, after all—but to give some context to his work. The Portland, Oregon, native has lived in Mexico City since 2011 and has a clear affinity for the cacophony and vibrancy of this dense, sprawling metropolis. It is with the fresh eyes of an outsider that Birk is able to translate the street life around him in his solo show Callejero at Anonymous Gallery.
In Spanish, callejero translates to an adjective form of “street,” indicating something as being of or from the street. It also connotes a wanderer, similar to the European flâneur, who traverses the city without purpose, absorbing a constant stream of urban sights, sounds, and smells. Birk does more than simply depict la calle (the street). He has created an evocative environment that is street-like. As curator Daniel Garza Usabiaga notes in an essay, “Birk’s work transcends the simple domain of representation, in the manner of a stage… Callejero does not aspire to realism.” Through an immersive installation that incorporates paintings, sculpture, light, and sound, he channels the myriad sensations of the world outside the gallery. In other hands, this endeavor might have been doomed to misguided essentialism, but Birk’s enthusiasm, sincerity, and keen eye make for a captivating experience.
Upon entering the gallery, visitors encounter a large piece of twisted aluminum that rises up from the ground to form a peaked arch, supported in the middle by a thin pole. Flyers advertising wares for sale are affixed to the structure, and packs of cigarettes dangle from a strap, similar to the ones displayed by vendors selling loosies on seemingly every other corner. Birk told me that the sculpture, El Caminero (2016), is based on a similar object he encountered on a grassy median near Cuernavaca. It seemed like it might just be a piece of urban detritus, but the fact that it was supported by a pole gave him the impression that someone had created it as a piece of DIY street art. It stood there for months without anyone carting it off as garbage or laying claim to it as artwork, occupying a liminal space between accident and intention that so often characterizes the city.
The sculpture resembles the work of another artistic outsider: the German émigré Mathias Goeritz, who moved to Mexico City in 1949 and had a major influence on generations of artists there. Goeritz’s well-known sculpture La Serpiente de El Eco (1953) is a dynamic piece of geometric abstraction—a twisted black zig-zag, like a crooked lightning bolt on its side. Birk updates the iconic work, dirtying up Goeritz’s idealized form with the grit and grime of life as actually lived.
Further in the gallery sits the front half of a car, stripped of its engine, wheels, and anything else of value. Birk had left a car outside the gallery, allowing scavengers to take it apart before hauling inside what was left—a carcass picked clean of its meat. This neighborhood collaboration is a process-based subtractive work that reveals action in absence as opposed to accretion.
The most conventional aspect of the show is a number of paintings that line the walls. Made with industrial and common materials like spray paint, Sharpie, and the auto-body filler Bondo, the pieces also incorporate wheat-pasted posters for lost dogs, stickers, and Hawaiian shirts. Some of the work hews too literally to conventional street art, incorporating crude graffiti tags and pop-cultural references like a pot leaf symbol or Thrasher magazine sticker. The more successful works are dingy, abject abstractions in the vein of CoBrA, conjuring the energy of street life without mimetically reproducing it.
Painted on the walls, a meandering white-on-black geometric pattern ties the disparate elements of the show together. The pattern resembles an aerial view of an urban plan—not as rectilinear plots, but as an organic and haphazard arrangement more common to cities that have evolved over hundreds of years. It is fitting for Mexico City, one of the oldest cities in the Americas, predating the arrival of Europeans at the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán. Shift this design ninety degrees, and the pattern references the walls around the city: volcanic rock painted black with interstitial areas painted white. It represents both the abstract notion, as well as the actual experience, of urban wandering common to the flâneur—that European import that makes perfect sense in this early New World city.
One of my favorite details are the shards of broken glass bottles that jut out from the tops of the walls circling the gallery. These homemade security measures can be seen everywhere around the city if you simply look up. Birk picks up on this ubiquitous symbol of resourcefulness, bringing it into the gallery where it takes on new role as abstract sculpture without losing its original identity.
Callejero is a show that you either love or you hate. I can’t imagine someone walking into the darkened gallery, with Birk’s narrated soundtrack of urban exploration playing through speakers on the floor, and not feeling something among the husks of rusted metal and grungy canvases. If you don’t buy into the premise, you might to find the show hokey or tired. But for those of us who can suspend our cynicism and delve into Birk’s theatrical vision, it’s worth the ride.
Andrew Birk: Callejero is on view at Anonymous Gallery in Mexico City through March 26, 2016.