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Nigel Whiteley : Professor of Visual Arts
Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts
Associated research centres and groups: Art

Memory, Imagination and Fact: the art of Nick Kowalski
by Nigel Whiteley

Kowalski's carefully chosen watchwords for his entry into the realm of art are "memory", "imagination" and "fact". They open the door to paintings that are evocative and resonant while offering the pleasures of the here-and-now, chiefly through the vehicle of the lovingly crafted, and often lusciously coloured, surface.

The paintings recall the work of the Catalan artist Antoni Tápies (born 1923) and the American Jim Dine (born 1935). Tápies often depicts humble objects (e.g. Painting with Laundry Bucket, 1970) or unglamorous parts of the anatomy (e.g. Matter in the Form of a Foot, 1965). The textured and weathered-looking art brut surfaces look like they have been lifted from a run-down area of the city and materials range from paint, canvas and sackcloth, to cardboard, string, earth and dust. Sometimes a door is depicted, as if etched into the constructed surface of the canvas, like the imprint of instantaneous radiation (e.g. Porta marró, 1959). The door is an important metaphor for Tápies, a way of describing his philosophy of art: 'A picture is nothing. It is a door that leads to another door.. And the truth we seek will never be found in a picture; it will only appear behind the last door that the viewer succeeds in opening by his own efforts." Similarly ordinary objects are not to be dismissed as humble or banal, but the means to something more profound: Tápies has stated how he seeks transformation "...from a particularised matter to a generalised one.... One can - starting with a knowledge of matter - reach other levels: the social, political, aesthetic levels." So, for Tápies, the ordinary and everyday are potentially transcendent.

Kowalski also explores what he terms "metaphorical associations" and makes use of "actual objects found in buildings" and, like Tápies, works with a diverse range of materials including cement, wax, chalk and even bread.

The Echoes series takes as its starting point buildings about to be demolished. Their decrepitude - an aesthetic that recalls Tápies's surfaces - hints at memories of lives lived, as Kowalski forms a bridge between, in his words, the "interior and exterior landscapes" of these decaying buildings - between the building as observed fact and a site of memories and imagination. Dustsheets, taken from the buildings, become shrouds when recontextualised as relics pinned to the wall, and add a rich vein of evocation.

The Ghosts series presents the viewer with hand tools, collected from his father and co-workers over many years. Each object is presented "as fact" but also brings with it its "past history". juxtaposed with the tool is a painted or drawn "portrait" of the tool. Kowalski sees the two-dimensional representation as "ghost-like", but also as a kind of reincarnation of the tool, giving it a new life. The simple, unfussy and unartistic drawing, and the dripped paint applied over the image recall Jim Dine's assemblages that include workmans' tools (e.g. Proposed Still Life, 1962), gardening equipment (e.g. Black Garden Tools, 1962), garments of clothing, artists' palettes and manufacturers' colour charts. Dine's drawing can be direct and graphic (e.g. White Suit Self-Portrait, 1964) and paint can dribble down the canvas surface (e.g. Colour of the Month of August, 1969), emphasising its characteristics and materiality

Dine asserted that "When I use objects, I see them as a vocabulary of feelings." While this may sound similar to Tápies's quest for something emotional and transcendent beyond the object, Dine meant it to apply in a far more immediate and material - even bodily - way: "I can spend a lot of time with objects," he continues, "and they leave me as satisfied as a good meal." Paint and surface are not talismatic for Dine, but things to be experienced as ends in themselves: "... I'm talking about paint, paint quality colour charts and those things objectively, as objects.

Whereas Tápies starts with the ordinary and hopes to transport us to a different, transcendent realm of emotions, feelings, memories and even spirituality, Dine moves us in an almost opposite direction. From the initial impact of his work that frequently connotes the mysticism and aestheticism of Abstract Expressionism (with its associated myths of the primeval and timeless),

Dine brings us down to earth by making us see the paint he applies, the images he creates, and the objects he includes as, first and foremost, things belonging to the here-and-now, an art of the real. Between Tápies and Dine, there is a spectrum, and Kowalski's work - with its attachment to "memory", "imagination" and "fact" - operates in one or two places there. His "memory" is less spiritual than Tápies's, more socially framed; and his "facts" are less brutal than Dine's, more artistically mediated. His "imagination" is the most romantic of the artists: less playful than Dine's; less profound than Tápies's.

But to define someone in terms of having "less" of one thing or another is unfair in Kowalski's case because he is an artist of considerable ability and depth. His romantic imagination is his most characteristic trait. In their undoubted beauty -I'm thinking particularly of the Mirror and Mantlepiece series - his paintings are, ultimately life-affirming and optimistic, albeit melancholic and wistful. A sense of loss, the absence of presence and the presence of absence, and a belief in beauty are key values in Romanticism, especially its English variant. It is Kowalski's achievement that his work upholds the dignified and humane values of Romanticism without degenerating into sentimentality nostalgia or mawkishness.

Nigel Whiteley Professor of Visual Arts at the Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts, Lancaster University.

Professor Nigel Whiteley -Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts


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