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From the Ground Up

Mark Cowardin


Mark Cowardin From the Ground Up November 8, 2009 – January 3, 2010 The Unbuilt Environment Home Improvement? Within the space of home exists an environment where simple, everyday objects and architecture shape our social and individual identities via memory, functionality, nostalgia and symbolic ritual. Our collective understanding of this place is periodically in question, however, as generations simultaneously renegotiate it’s meaning through migration, displacement, different cultural points of reference, and ideas of usefulness. One hope for this environment is that it ultimately reflects some extension of the self, an appendage that gestures outward from how we wish to live, simultaneously containing and holding forth what we aspire to become. More than simply a roof over our heads, the home expands and contracts with the rhythm of life, forming a bridge between private, interior domicile and exterior, public persona. Contemporary popular culture encourages us, at every turn, to redesign, renovate, update, restore, teardown and rebuild these spaces as we see fit. Within this process, however, crafted materials become detritus, filling our landfills with wasted labor. The flipside of the Home-Improvement industry is a movement that thrives on the perpetual teardown to rebuild for taste rather than function (i.e. the “Man-Cave” or “Flip This House” cable show phenomena).

Artist Mark Cowardin and his studio, 2009. Images courtesy of Epsten Gallery.

Artist Mark Cowardin brings this environment into focus with a new body of work that defines the home as a specifically un-built environment. Neither quite here nor there, the conceptual spaces Cowardin creates with his sculptures and installations are mental thresholds for us to enter and consider various states of potential. It is up to us to open the many doors of interpretation he invites us to enter. Cowardin approaches his subjects through the industrial complex of the building industry, namely construction materials such as actual two-byfours and simulated cinder blocks, ductwork, and electrical switches. Using these and other forms as a type of workman’s visual language, Cowardin manages to subvert them into ironic and conflicting metaphors for a sense of loss over the deconstruction of our historic surroundings, while simultaneously questioning the usefulness of nostalgia when balancing the scales of mass consumption and future sustainability.

The Architecture of Nostalgia Cowardin addresses the Epsten Gallery’s overall architectural statement as one of a simple square and vertical triangular gable configuration. In his mind this form becomes a blank diagram, an iconic signifier for a house that is, literally and figuratively, a home for art. In Cowardin’s dwelling, however, thoughts about this built environment become conflated with concerns over the environment, natural resources and the weight and influence of history. Familiar icons of the Industrial Revolution such as the gaslight, cast-iron claw-foot tub, and wood-burning stove acknowledge what may be a yearning for an earlier time, when lifestyle choices were made out of simple and individual necessity. These inventions inspired notions of mutual accessibility to basic needs and respire for the tired laborer. In the context of Cowardin’s installation and the 21st century, however, these inventions take on a more compromising position. What was once considered innovative and efficient is now thought to be less so in a time when de-forestation and global warning demand innovations that address real concerns for our natural resources and the environment. (The irony of a wooden wood-burning stove is not lost on the viewer.) Stove, 2009, wood & mixed media, 132” x 49.5” x 49.5”. Image courtesy of EG Schempf.


Cowardin’s sculptures remind us of lumber’s origin as timber. On its journey from construction-site surplus to carved, sanded and waxed sculpture, Cowardin’s wooden materials are pulled from their mundane existence and give a new organic life force within the realm of art. Concepts of art grow and deepen as our bodies and intellects grow throughout life, forming concentric rings of knowledge and wisdom that strengthen the fabric of our legacy. In Cowardin’s hands, simple two-by-fours come to life as carved objects that dwell in our imagination, reminding us of the simplicity of an earlier life, one of settlement, and the heritage of living off the land.

The Home as Studio Although Mark Cowardin surveys the many industrial areas of Kansas and Missouri to gather both photographs and artifacts that inform his work, one need not look further than the artist’s own studio to find inspiration. Nestled behind his house, past a concrete driveway full of chalk drawings, lawn furniture and children’s toys sits Shotgun Studios — a metal outbuilding not unlike the kind a father would use for his woodshop to fix broken toys, store lawn equipment, an outdoor grill, and last summer’s plastic pool. In looking through this space, it becomes clear that Cowardin possesses the skill of a draftsman, craftsman, and builder as he draws upon each to expertly assemble his work. From chalkboard to table saw, Cowardin crafts his sculptures with a matter-of-factness to the point of suggesting functional objects. His work appears as something we might examine and touch as a useful object, not unlike what a cabinet-maker or carpenter might construct. Mark Cowardin’s sculptures distinguish themselves from the familiar,

workaday objects we may know in a literal sense, however, as forms that exist for themselves, performing an altogether separate use as highly functional objects of wonder and contemplation. We may relate to any one of his sculptures through our own experiences, suggesting that the artist is reflecting upon the same things we may question within our surroundings. It is easy to recall memories of the once eternal flame of the gas-powered light post, typically found burning in nearly every suburban front lawn. A rarified thing of the past, often left broken and unrepaired, it now becomes a useless decoration not unlike other artifacts that have lost ground within our contemporary neighborhoods such as outdoor clotheslines, weathervanes, porches, single-car garages, and sidewalks. Cowardin communicates his concern for this lost history as he does for his own philosophical and political concerns of mass consumption and the waste of natural resources, by using the traditions of woodworking and craftsmanship. To this end, Cowardin references a stack of wooden cinder blocks or a wooden chimney as being nearly identical to his own height. Thus, his language of construction transforms with anthropomorphic potential into surrogates for the figure, if not a self-portrait as laborer. In this same vein, Cowardin reminds us to consider ourselves in this equation through his use of finished yet visibly flawed wooden materials. By allowing us to see the raw origins of this life form, he serves to remind us of our own relationship to the natural world. At this point, it would be easy for Cowardin to take a stand on issues surrounding humanity’s needs for sustenance and its misuse of natural resources, except that the artist intentionally implicates himself by using the very same materials of consumption. Rather than choosing to stand on one side or the other of a longstanding rivalry, Cowardin intertwines the two as inextricably linked, acknowledging that it is up to us to make up our own minds. Cowardin’s sculptures invite us to move through space around them, to discover idiosyncratic details that give clues to their meaning. Their sealed interiors further imply a bodily reference, in offering spaces that are as inaccessible as our own interiors.

GAS-O-LINE, 2009, wood & paint, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Brett Gustafson.

One such figure comes to mind in a form that is particularly familiar to our times. Sourcing the ancient technique of wooden barrel construction, the ubiquitous unit of measure of the 20th century, the fifty-five gallery steel oil drum, is reshaped and repurposed in Cowardin’s hands as a staved icon of contradiction. Rendered useless by his design, and sealed off from use, it reminds us of the source of our seemingly inescapable environmental conflict — ourselves.


Mark Cowardin From the Ground Up November 8, 2009 – January 3, 2010 Established in 1991, the purpose of the Kansas City Jewish Museum of Contemporary Art (KCJMCA) is to provide innovative art exhibitions and related programming that engage seniors and diverse audiences from all segments of our community to enrich lives and celebrate our common humanity through art. KCJMCA realizes this goal through a cooperative partnership with Village Shalom, an assisted living facility that houses KCJMCA’s Epsten Gallery, and through partnerships with local,regional and national institutions that participate in KCJMCA’s Museum Without Walls exhibition program. Acknowledgements: Exhibiting artist Mark Cowardin wishes to thank his wife Amy and his two sons Maxwell and Hugo for their ongoing support and patience. He would also like to thank Brett Gustafson, Jason Bryant, Kent Smith, and Marcus Cain for offering assistance in preparation for this exhibition. Kansas City Jewish Museum of Contemporary Art (KCJMCA) would like to thank exhibiting artist Mark Cowardin and the Lighton Foundation for making this exhibition and catalogue brochure possible. Additionally, this program is presented in part by the Kansas Arts Commission, at state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, which believes that a great nation deserves great art. KCJMCA also wishes to thank the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Kansas City, Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, Jewish Heritage Foundation of Greater Kansas City, the Flo Harris Supporting Foundation, Bank of America, Francis Family Foundation, and H&R Block for their ongoing support of our programs. We also wish to thank our UrbanSuburban Patrons and Artists, members of the Friends of KCJMCA and our volunteers.

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Mark Cowardin: From the Ground Up