Chris Dobrowolski: Offer Must End Soon

Jess Twyman

I recently dug up a text I wrote on Chris’s previous exhibition ‘Offer Must End Soon’. Elements of his work have since developed – inevitably – but there are also some strands that continue to fascinate Chris and have found their way into our current show, ‘Remnants of Utopia’.

Offer Must End Soon

I first came across Chris Dobrowolski’s work in 1998 in the exhibition ‘The Uses of an artist: Constable in Constable Country Now’, and was struck by the originality of his talent – I had never seen anything like it. While you cannot ignore a tank made out of Constable reproductions rolling over the gentle hills of Suffolk, Dobrowolski’s smaller-scale works also share the same inventiveness. His latest series includes painted dioramas made from found materials such as wooden boxes or record players which are transformed into miniature worlds. A complex array of sound and interaction mechanisms is incorporated to help set the scene. It is easy to laugh or be amazed by the objects presented, yet on closer inspection there is a tight focus to each work that hints at the thoughtfulness behind Dobrowolski’s production. In this exhibition he turns his attention to the relationship between artistic integrity and commodification in the art market.

For many years, Chris Dobrowolski has been uncomfortable with the art market, with feelings of the denigration of art through the commercial process always lurking near the surface. He found himself in a contradictory situation of his own making: he couldn’t sell his work without risking a level of self-compromise. This exhibition attempts to deal with these ‘hang-ups’ straight on. Each work concentrates on an aspect of promotion and marketing – from a beautifully painted diorama that sets the scene for ice-cream selling to a parody of the free gifts inside cereal packets. Each work is carefully crafted, technically fascinating – and always thought-provoking.

The tank is just one of a number of functioning vehicles made by Dobrowolski, along with a boat, a hovercraft, a pedal car and an aeroplane. Lovingly hand-constructed, and bizarrely engineered from found bits and pieces, these vehicles function as a paradox: they offer a real-life experience, while at the same time transporting the artist into an imaginary world he seems to want to escape to. With the small-scale works, a parallel universe emerges where toy cars set off on adventures across a diorama painted with a landscape setting, while electrical appliances contribute movement and atmosphere. Ironically – considering the critique of this exhibition – the smaller works are now infinitely more saleable than their larger counterparts.

Selling is going to be difficult for Chris Dobrowolski, and the whole process of making works destined for a white cube gallery has been uneasy, although undoubtedly intriguing. Indeed, one reason why he has developed an insightful and self-deprecating performative lecture about his work is that it allowed him to reach a wide audience while not having to show his work in an art environment. A few years ago, Chris was described as an ‘anti-art artist’ and I asked him if this was still the case. He quickly answered: “an anti-art artist plus, plus, plus – to infinity”. This has become one of the great strengths of his work – its integrity and lack of artifice. For a long time the sheer scale of his work has been a resistance to the art world in itself: the boat was at its best at sea, the pedal car made sense crossing the Fens while escaping from art college in Hull, and the hovercraft needed to be returned to the beach where all the plastic bottles is was made from were found. These became rites of passage, and in this exhibition of smaller works there is a sense of an artist growing up. They don’t have to be so personal, so tied directly into a life-changing experience. Nonetheless, they still matter, and each work focuses in on itself with an integrity of materials, of execution and (perhaps most critically) an integrity to the idea behind the work itself. All the works share this common thread and it becomes central to everything on display.

Dobrowolski has described a number of works in the show as ‘one liners’ and perhaps by this he means that he sees them as direct interpretations of the exhibition’s subject matter. Others works, made more recently, share the same focus but have a more ambiguous translation. Stop Me and Buy One (If You Can), for example, has evolved a visual identity of its own and perhaps in doing so, a subtler message. Already, the process of making the work has grown and relaxed into itself.

In an attempt to position Chris’s art while working together on this show, we discussed whether his work is process or performance-based, for elements of both are clearly present in his work. As I did less of the talking and Chris fell into his entertaining anecdotes, it became clear that a central impulse was emerging. Landscape – it’s always present and I don’t think he would dispute it if he were described as a landscape artist.

The impulse also seems to run deeper than that, however. A few years back Chris explained: “I have spent time at art college learning a visual language, but I am conscious that, compared to my father who went through the war, I’ve got nothing to say. I need the things I make to be some sort of small adventure. As a result I find that they are made in a similar way and for similar reasons – as I used to make go-karts when I was a child. As “real-life” experiences my adventures may pale in comparison to, say, my father’s in the war. However, this sense of inadequacy I feel is an experience in itself.” As a post-war generation we have a very different reality to those who had direct experiences of the Second World War and perhaps the nostalgic atmosphere of Dobrowolski’s work can be explained, in part at least, by this time of self-sacrifice and ‘make-do and mend’. There is a sense of a wider message, as Colin Painter has suggested of Dobrowolski: “…he has the capacity to combine celebration with uncertainty; humour with speculation, the ridiculous with the profound”. This is an exhibition to laugh at – but there is room for contemplation too.

Art Exchange 2006