Dennis Kowalski was a lynchpin in the emergence of  Chicago from a sheltered conversation on neo-vernacularism and a debate about public sculpture in the 70’ and  80’s. While the city was also a principal exhibition center for printmakers from the Midwest’s best art presses and universities, a friend to photography and ceramics in many respects, local collectors were reluctant to invest in the most progressive art at home. This left cutting edge artists, especially sculptors, at a disadvantage, even if their work was critical to a more freewheeling, independent art community, and an influence on regional art programs in higher ed.

“Bendigo Center” photograph & colored pencil on Mylar, 22X30″, 2020                                                                                              

Kowalski’s work is a complex fusion of subjects and mediums. All center around architectural environments – domestic, which he likes to magnify and public, that he tends to naturalize. In the 80’s he appropriated forms from Chicago bungalows and workers cottages. He might assemble simply constructed human-scaled objects, part porch swing, part octagonal spire sculptures. To them he would add details of masonry cornices, flashing, and downspouts that sometimes felt like errant stage props that had dispensed with narratives. At that time there was some formal similarity with the design logic and curiosity about architectural vernacularism by the brilliant Minneapolis-based Siah Armajani, albeit at a smaller scale and intent.

Later Kowalski pushed out environmentally at Artpark and Wards Island in New York. He was represented by Marianne Deson, and a member of a formidable trio of sculpture faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago, that included Martin Puryear and Charles Wilson. What he shared with them and a small but significant group of other Chicago artists and designers was art that was theoretical and environmentally responsive at a certain remove from ordinary exhibition contexts and markets. They also shared and displayed a more serious consideration of craft than most progressive artists. This was likely derived from Chicago’s overall taste for handmade objects, and furthered by its design and manufacturing industry. The city’s architecture and engineering history provided a particular experiential frame for “non-aligned” multi-disciplinary artists to think about.

There were a few venues in Chicago for minimalist or conceptual work but not enough until the New Art Examiner, known to be dismissive of Imagism, and Hubbard Street co-operatives, who shared a trending eclecticism included large-scale abstract painting, installation, and performance. By the mid 70’s there were spaces large and raw enough to welcome Kowalski’s constructions and a press smart enough, and also raw enough, to make sense of them. If there was any difference between Chicago’s progressive art ideas and other art capitals it was minimal (remember that when Kowalski came up there were only two cities in the U.S. that had artist-lead debates about the direction of contemporary art). Scale and economy then suppressed opportunities for Chicago to broadcast its growing identity. Consequently, Chicago’s first generation of post-modern and post-structuralist artists were burdened with the anxiety of moving to and being absorbed by New York or minding their own discourse, and careers in the Midwest.

Kowalski thrived in the city’s progressive art venues, even if he was  low-key and the alternative spaces and co-ops were sheltered and elitist. After a decade of reflecting on Constructivist-influenced architectural forms and simple building materials, he  moved to modestly sized installations with themes such as public housing, enviro-economics, and related social sub-texts. Though trained in architecture, his considerable skill with images and materials emerged in spades as he applied sidelong glances and abstract marginalia to focus on paper.

“Cultural Center”  photograph & colored pencil on Mylar, 22X30″, 2021

Kowalski has been perfecting his flat photo-based mixed media to modify his experience of architecture as in flight, or in progress – before becoming disassembled and reassembled. They acknowledge the fluidity of vision that abstract painting ironically re-deposits in real time on otherwise stable objects. He sees real space abstracted from the beginning, especially streams of peripheral light that unceremoniously frames everything. They observe forms that encourage spontaneity and opposes brick-and-mortar logic. Although derived from specific buildings there are few identifiable entrances, no traditional plinths, no columns, no left or right or top and bottom order. He zones in on radical spaces and samples architecture that prompts a dialogue about the overlap of public use and aesthetic function. He pays full attention to the flux in architecture as a philosophical subject and a personal project.

He touches on media identity and contemporary art’s mislaid commitment to innovate, which it once shared with technology. He applies it to decades of indirect observations of Chicago in images that are conversant and mutable, calling attention to visual patterns that have consistently held his attention. These include skewed grids, angularity, segmentation, and extruded form dormant in the cityscape’s various districts.

His initial 2D works were light, hovering forms that improvised on the blending of photographic and architectural technology, full of references to perspectival distortions not possible in engineering, but encouraged by the camera. They were credible hybrids – part sculpture, part CAD file, part photograph, part mirror and due to diagrams and silhouettes, fresh blood for considering local urbaness and drawing.

Each new drawing contains two 4’’ by 6” color prints with a profile of a tilted building elevation, situated left and right on a sheet of mylar. Occasionally photographs are altered but generally not, though individual images have compressed perspectives and may be spatially inverted. Colored pencil appendages improvise on the logic of the picture’s geometry with radically different satellite compositions. They match the prismaticsof the photograph and introduce a structural asymmetry that feels spontaneous and organic. It’s as if Kowalski takes graphic petri dishes and cultivates a hypothetical genetic mutation.

“Art Building” photograph & colored pencil on Mylar, 22X30″, 2022

Some pieces seem to leave the original in the dark. “Art Building” has images wedged into the margins with wildly animated gold plinths shooting from the center. “Gehry in The Park #2” is similarly trapezoidal but more subtle and informal. Here the Pritzker Pavilion becomes a scrambled gray echo of mine shaft portal panic.

“Gehry in the Park 2″ photograph & colored pencil on Mylar, 22X30”,   2023

Kowalski throws us a curve when he includes a warehouse from the township of Geelong, Australia, which is much older and coarsened than his other models.  Chicago sites enhance the sculptor’s signature impressions and design sensibility, but here he applies a  serious stylistic departure with a perceptible foreign accent. In “Geelong,” one image sets upright, and the other is radically tilted. Pitch and scale are recklessly balanced with neither dominating the picture plane. The image on the right is inverted and initially reads like an abstraction of the interior. A close look at the left finds another partially masked exterior orientation. Blocks of additional color feel anomalous and painterly and these planar De Stijl footprints push the work wide of its first perspective, dampening an otherwise ascending substitute.

“Geelong AU”, photograph and colored pencil on Mylar, 22X30″ 2022

Kowalski’s current work is grounded in architecture within a demotic view of ordinary environments. It reflects the modernist tenet that art should be both of the people and erudite. But he tests viewers perceptions by including as many visual ambiguities as pleasures. Signs that shift softly between nature and culture, between present and past, are suspended in a state of pre-culture. The pre-aesthetic is one of marginal beauty that’s yet to be fleshed out. Kowalski finds it frozen in place historically but subsisting in degrees of localness. To be sure these are things that are neither purely local or free of culture at large. They oscillate between the variants and feel like visual language unintentionally. They have only approximate value since art narratives are frustratingly negotiable. They’re slowly released from an ocean of signs on spec. They have no autonomy as they’re dependent on pattern –  visual parts of speech that are in themselves exceptional without an attendant metaphor –  something like a measure of etude notations.

Not every familiar form can be linked to art history or have some degree of regional DNA, but pretty near. We’re programmed to sense varying degrees of nature and culture in our surroundings. Semiotics suggests that if we don’t have a word for something, we won’t see it. Likewise, any object has a limited time-frame to be modified into art. By taking the built environment as his primary source of inquiry, Kowalski isolates that which has the most extensive variety of aesthetic pre-cognizance. He cherry-picks the architectural host of an emergent sign, peels back the skin, camouflages it, and advances it as exuberant post-abstract reclamation.