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There is a long-standing tradition in American Art, of carefully constructing a still life to convey double meanings, metaphors and mythologies beyond a typical, purely aesthetic reading. That tradition has proven to be alive and well, in the recent body of ceramic sculptures and functional ware by Tim Kowalczyk.

Tim Kowalczyk, who is best known for his intricate and realistic, “trompe l’oeil” ceramics, is not the first, nor will he be the last to use his skills as a sculptor, to replicate objects and surfaces we encounter every day. What makes his work unique, is that he allows his creations to serve a function. By using his skill set not just to trick, but in a way that can be adapted into our everyday lives, Kowalczyk is able to implicate his audience as participants and performers in the world that he has taken so much care to fabricate. Handling and using one of Kowalczyk’s “Cardboard” mugs, is a pleasure that no one could resist. In a world that often seems so painfully real, we sometimes need an escape to a place, where our eyes and our hands question each other in such a charming way.

But Kowalczyk, has made the decision to take his bag of tricks a bit further in his current body of work, by choosing to pay tribute to the twentieth century icon, Muhammad Ali with a series of sculptures that beautifully compliment his functional ceramics. In 1974, in the lead up to his “Rumble in the Jungle” fight with George Forman, Ali delivered a series of beautifully poetic lines of trash-talk, that today are considered legendary. Phrases like, “I done handcuffed lightning, throw thunder in jail,” and “I’m so mean I make medicine sick,” were an important part of the personal mythology Ali worked decades to cultivate, but they are merely the jumping off point for Kowalczyk.

At first glance Kowalczyk’s sculptures appear to convey comically literal translations of Muhammad Ali’s words, but just as was the case with Ali, it’s the details that reveal the true character of an artist. In his sculpture, Handcuffed (handcuffs) Kowalczyk shows us a literal image of a pair of handcuffs clinching the tip of a lightning bolt.  At first we smile, but upon deeper inspection we are forced to consider that there is more to this story. Kowalczyk references nostalgic signage to transport us to the time and mood, in the country that first bore witness to Ali’s performance. In Murdered (knife), Kowalczyk, shows us what he imagines Ali was alluding to when he said “Only last week I murdered a rock,” by conjuring up an “Excalibur” style legend, transforming our image of a fighter into that of a leader, drawing his audience more deeply into the story he is telling us with this work.

Kowalczyk takes his multilayered method of storytelling further, by including a shark bite in his image of a captured, bath toy whale in, Tussled (toy whale) bringing to mind the image of “needing a bigger boat,” in addition to evoking Ali’s particular brand of poetic humor. Again, Kowalczyk doesn’t just cage the speaker box representing thunder in, Thunder (cage) he also manages to remind us of the dangers that went along with the more industrialized America of the past, by replicating the cage used by coal miners to house canaries when testing mine safety. 

Kowalczyk has supplied his audience with an impressive stage, full of surreal and believable experiences to ponder, but allow me again to remind you, his work is more than just an illusionistic front, of art on pedestals. Kowalczyk provides us with tools and props which function as keys to his artistic illusion. He is at heart, a potter, and that touchstone allows us to become characters in his play. All he requires is that we handle one of his cups, and we can enter his world, that is equal parts theatrical trickery and pop culture dialogue.

As is the case with all the best art ever made, Kowalczyk draws us in with his mastery of skills, that allow him to create shapes, forms and textures that would be impossible to create in clay, for a mere mortal. But he doesn’t stop there, Kowalczyk embeds his sculptural cups with encoded numerology and symbols, derived from sources that range from contemporary television, to midcentury dystopian novels. It is upon examining these details, that we begin to lose our discomfort with Kowalczyk’s disconcerting replication of nature, and are invited to escape reality, and enter fiction. 

Written By Heath Ballowe