Landscape Artist

Seeing nature beneath the city.

By Fred Camper

“There wasn’t much there,” artist Dennis Kowalski says of the neighborhood where his family moved in 1941, just across the street from what would become Midway Airport. “My parents’ house was one of the first houses west of Cicero. There were fields all around, and farmers from further west used to come with horses and wagons and knock down the fields. They would cut the grass and let it dry and load it up on horse-drawn wagons and take it to their farms further west along 55th Street.” Kowalski and his brothers would periodically set fire to the prairie grass, putting out the flames with blankets.

Soon more houses were built, and the airport began to grow, intruding on Kowalski’s idyllic neighborhood. Midway serviced armed-forces aircraft during World War II. “We had a runway parallel to our house. I’d stand in the prairie there and throw rocks at the planes. I don’t know what I was thinking. I remember a B-17 was coming in, and the nose gunner shook his finger at me when he saw me winding up. He scared the shit out of me.”

Even as the fields turned into subdivisions, Kowalski noticed that nature could still elude human control and understanding. He says every summer a small pond was formed by a leaking fire hydrant near a gravel road. “I would fantasize about this little pond as some sort of evolving ecosystem, like it was almost possible that some fish or animal life would come out of there.”

Kowalski never thought of art as “a profession that someone could actually do,” so he studied architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, when it was located at Navy Pier. But he quickly found he wasn’t interested in the details of “placing toilets, drawing two lines for a two-by-six.” He felt architecture was “almost too optimistic,” and he was bothered by the “pragmatic aspect”–an architect’s need for commissions–whereas “you can make art without necessarily having a client.”

Housing Starts, an installation included in Kowalski’s current exhibit at Beret International Gallery, consists of a large photo of a suburban development placed next to a stack of more than 300 stained coffee cups. The idea first hit Kowalski when he spotted an enormous construction site in the western suburbs–“Wow! Look at this devastation!” An immense mound of earth had been moved to make room for houses and an office tower. Ignoring the Keep Off signs, Kowalski climbed the mound. “See those two dark holes,” he says, pointing at the photo. “I sunk right up to my knees there instantly. That stuff looks dry, but it’s wet; the mud was oily smelling.” The coffee cups, which Kowalski purchased and stained with coffee himself, are “surrogates for cut-down trees.” He says the work reflects our widespread destruction of the landscape for temporary rewards, “these kinds of developments where people get switched from one corporation to another every couple of years.” Kowalski says he’s troubled by “this tremendous waste of land…these massive suburbs built on some of the best topsoil in the world.”

Kowalski often uses common construction materials, giving his work a certain grittiness. For two floor pieces titled Trail’s End, he cut curves into sheets of plywood–deriving the shapes from golf course designs. He set a rock at one end of each sheet and a plastic horse at the other. “The golf course is about control of nature,” he says. “It’s a kind of a natural refuge, but totally manipulated, one of the biggest pesticide users.” The rocks are “actual pieces of nature,” he says, while “the horse is not even real sized, but miniaturized and plastic. Plywood is interesting because it’s a manipulated natural form: they go around the tree, shave off sheets, and laminate it together.” Kowalski relates Trail’s End to the death of 19th-century American optimism, which was based on the idea that “we can always move someplace else–and now we don’t have anyplace else to move.” It also refers to the old motel signs that read “Trail’s End” and included a picture of an Indian on a horse at the edge of a cliff. “The horse is looking down, and the Indian is hunched over and can’t go anymore.”

Backbone consists of four three-by-five grids, each with nine floor tiles. In the center of each tile is a black-and-white photo of a Chicago street scene. Most of the people in the photos look ordinary, and, Kowalski says, this relates in part to the title: “These people are the backbone of the country–they’re doing their jobs, buying food, keeping things going. On the other hand, to put it bluntly, they’re also the people who fuck things up, because of their apathy.” The subjects didn’t know they were being photographed, making Kowalski a bit of a spy.

Here he recalls his work for army intelligence. Drafted in 1962, and quickly distressed by our escalating involvement in Vietnam, Kowalski worked on a project involving aerial photographs, some of “military installations we were bombing in ’63 and ’64. The analysts would make marks on the photographs, interpreting them; I would make overlays allowing the photographs to be read more easily. Once the sergeant major showed me some file cabinets of photographs.He explained to me that intelligence agents had taken the photos, which looked like family vacation snapshots but in fact were informational photographs taken on beaches around the world–with information about the sand density and the angle of the beach into the water–for future military applications. The casualness and deception of those photos may have something to do with what I’m doing now. What I’m doing is a kind of surveillance.”

His photos are taken quickly. “I usually find a corner that’s fairly active, and shoot a roll or two.” Pointing to one shot in which a blurred car passes in front of a man, Kowalski says, “I really like the serendipity of what happens when you’re doing this–the way this guy has been minimized.” The grid also “minimizes the importance of each photograph.” The floor tiles are commercially manufactured and come in different colored patterns. “It’s a common material that we all walk on. I like their references to natural phenomena; one looks like the ocean from an airplane. I try to make them disjointed in a way, like maybe they don’t make sense compositionally. I’m trying to make uncommon sculpture out of common materials.”

The photos are “common” too, ordinary. Kowalski says the work might have been “more difficult to penetrate” if the floor tiles were arranged nicely and the photographs were artier. He says he wants art to be “more accessible.”

“My father came to this opening; it was nice to see him because he’s getting up there in years, and my mother’s ill. They’ve always come and never said much except the usual parent stuff. But at my previous show my father said, ‘After all these years, I finally like your work and understand it.'” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dennis Kowalski photo by Nathan Mandel; “Trails End” by Dennis Kowalski; “Native American Housing–North Woods’ by Dennis Kowalski photos by Nathan Mandell.