BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 03 MAR 98
Featured in
Issue 39

Dennis Kowalski

BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 03 MAR 98

Dennis Kowalski has dedicated 20 years of his life to making work that questions Modernism's mechanisation of nature. Heidegger's observation that it's not that the picture of the world has changed, but the fact that it became a picture at all, is at the root of Kowalski's qualms about modern society. He contemptuously reminds us that our seasons are no longer recognised by the earth's proximity to the sun but by the changing displays at K-mart. Although you can come to count on Kowalski's continual lampooning of the commodification of nature, at heart he is neither a Greenpeace militant nor an eco-pioneer but a poet like Lucretius, who Virgil saw as happy in having understood the causes of things.

Rejecting metaphysical abstractions, Kowalski's work invariably finds ample ground for spectacle and beauty in the perceptible universe. His continuing use of 12 by 12-inch linoleum tiles - arranged in symmetrical grids or horizontal lines - not only describes a new landscape for the urban masses but provides Kowalski with a Minimalist platform on which to stage his sociological observations and art world jabs. A series of four pieces en-titled Captain Nemo (1997) uses various aqua-green coloured linoleum tiles to frame photographs of aquarium backdrops - exotic underwater scenes of sterile ocean life that could never co-exist with the school of guppies swimming in front of it. Beautiful in their synthetic appearance and unsettling in their mockery, Kowalski's linoleum objects continue to systematically codify the modern experience of the natural world while getting in a few good-natured shots at Carl Andre and doctrines of superficial content.

Desert (1996) is a linear string of seven light brown tiles with small holes cut in each square to reveal bodies of water. Procured from postcard-type reproductions, these tiny pictures of waterfalls, meandering rivers and still ponds are located toward the top of the tiles on the left, but like a declining graph, begin to descend on the right. Clearly, this is not a bell curve or a Larry Poons painting, only a sad commentary on our artificial relationship with the environment.

Paralleling the disembodied eye from which culture views the natural world, the tiny oases of water quenching the scuff-resistant wasteland heightens the absurd dualities that underscores patriarchal dominance over the natural world while mimicking the minuscule lens in which we view the complexities of global ecology. Kowalski is also careful to articulate the landscape reference by horizontally aligning the fine directional pattern typical of the type of institutional linoleum tiles he employs. His astute formal language - minimal and clean - is best at promoting the eminent danger of emotional neutrality toward nature (and art).

Sidestepping the plethora of trendy dioramas currently seeping uncontrollably into the art scene as a result of Michael Ashkin's success, Kowalski's three floor sculptures entitled, Native American Housing (1997) - one each for the Plains, Northwoods, and Southwest Native Americans - crassly posit a subsidised nature and a prepackaged aboriginal culture. These lean-to card houses made from cut brown floor tiles dispersed amongst formations of patio stone are a frightening synthesis of American subdivision, inner city housing projects and the Final Solution.

With their daunting practical ease and political insensitivity, Kowalski's 'home improvement' models lack the decorative concern evident in his wall works. And yet as miniatures, they refuse to engage nostalgia, leisure and collectability; the key to much of the arousal surrounding the current fad for diorama production. Kowalski's models look like they belong in a contractor's trailer next to some blueprints and elevation maps, not in a natural history museum. This is what makes these foreboding sprawls of teepees cum card houses more cynical than the other works in the show; their potential for covert execution on an immediate and grand scale.

Also included in the exhibition was a signed edition of 25 proposals, again with ironic overtones, outlining a less disdainful, yet plausible, art installation that would work on a grassroots level to bridge the nature/culture dichotomy. S.U.V. (1997), an acronym for Survival Utility Vehicles, recognises the ecological impact of pick-up truck scavengers on the urban macrocosm. Collecting everything with a potential recycling value, these self-imposed garbage entrepreneurs barely squeeze out a living methodically gleaning alleyways with their beat-up flatbed trucks.

Kowalski's proposal is to have three scavengers make their daily collection and instead of delivering it to the appropriate recycling plant, dump it in an exhibition space. 'I would help contribute to their livelihood, add to the economy, waste gas and oil, create senseless activity and add to or detract from my artistic reputation', Kowalski writes in his S.U.V. proposal. But in spite of the sarcasm embedded in this hypothetical project, Kowalski harbours enormous respect and admiration for these men, because their livelihood mirrors the process-oriented paradigm of sound ecology. Unfortunately Kowalski himself is limited to creating exquisitely crafted gestures of exaggerated spectatorial epistemology.

Michelle Grabner is an artist, curator and professor in the Department of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is Director of the exhibition spaces The Suburban in Milwaukee, USA and the Poor Farm in Wisconsin, USA.