A Celebration of the Impossible: “How Great I Am” Opens at Plains Art Museum

Thunder Dark Stoneware, Glaze, and Underglazes 2014 5 ¾”h x 17 ½”w x 5”d

The Plains Art Museum has premiered the new exhibition “How Great I Am,” showcasing works by its Spring 2018 artist in residence, Tim Kowalczyk. It features a collection of his “trompe l’oeil,” or “deceive the eye” sculptures and mugs, made of ceramic but convincingly imitating a variety of materials and substances. It will be on display on the main floor of the Katherine Kilbourne Burgum Center for Creativity until March 3.

The exhibit takes its name and its inspiration from Muhammad Ali’s famously lyrical and exaggerated interview extolling his own power before his Rumble in the Jungle bout against George Foreman in 1974. Each piece is titled after a word or phrase from this interview — “Handcuffed,” “Threw,” “Wrestled,” “Murdered,” “Sick” — and depicts an interpretation of Ali’s larger-than-life claims. “The poetic nature, rhythmic style and his outrageous demeanor is what drew me to this speech,” Kowalcyk says. “How the speech starts out with a semi realistic way of training (chopping trees) and gets more and more outrageous with every line made it possible for me to imagine and create sculptures.”

Yixing, Dark Stoneware, Glaze, and Underglazes
3 ½”h x 18w x 8 ½”d

Kowalczyk, of Minonk, Illinois, graduated from Illinois State University and has taught in schools including Illinois Community College, Kankakee Community College and University Illinois Springfield. He now pursues studio art full-time, and will be in residence at the Plains Art Museum from February 12th through 16th.

The credibility of Kowalczyk’s ceramic illusions is truly impressive. Within one sculpture, metal, fabric and rubber are convincingly mimicked, not only in texture and appearance but in interaction. A screw appears to fasten a metal plate, a small cage seems constructed of thin wooden dowels slotted into carved holes. Pieces that would be entertaining or thought-provoking even in the mixed-media format they pretend to be demand constant re-evaluation, as the viewer remembers that each minute detail of craftsmanship is, itself, an illusion. Muhammad Ali said “I have murdered a rock,” and Tim Kowalczyk created a stone stabbed through with a kitchen knife — except neither the stone nor knife are real, any more than Ali’s boast. For both men, artistry is demonstrated by the confidence and skill with which the impossible is casually realized. “Both have a poetic beauty,” Kowalczyk says. “Ali’s words created images, for me at least, and my trompe l’oeil sculptures create a dialogue that refer to Ali’s speech. Each sculpture highlighting and emphasizing the lines of Ali’s speech. From object choices to arrangement of objects the two aesthetic choices reflect Ali’s boast and shows the impossibility and absurdity of the words and the objects pairing.”

Tussled and Wrestled (mugs)
Dark Stoneware, Glaze, and Underglazes
Each mug 5”h x 5”w x 3”d

During his week of residency, from February 12th to the 16th, Kowalczyk will host a trompe l’oeil workshop, where he will demonstrate the materials preparation and construction process he uses to create his sculptures, including his signature “cardboard” mugs. “I make stuff out of stuff that looks like other stuff,” Kowalczyk says. “I want people to see how to make garbage look cool.” Participants will be able to practice these techniques and produce an object to keep. The workshop is $50, or $40 to museum members and university students with a valid ID, and requires pre-registration. It will take place over two nights, on Monday, Febraury 12th and Wednesday, February 14th from 6 to 9 pm.

Kowalczyk will also host an Artist Talk on his work on February 15th from 6 to 7 pm. This event is free and open to the public.