Kacper Kowalski: OVER / Side Effects
Galerie XII, Los Angeles
Through January 12, 2019
By Jenny Begun
A new gallery has just opened its doors on Miracle Mile sharing the courtyard with Praz-Delavallade and 1301 PE Projects and Editions. Los Angeles outpost of Galerie Photo 12, Paris officially opened on December 1 with a solo show of Kacper Kowalski introducing the Polish aerial photographer to the West Coast audience.
The exhibition, OVER / Side Effects, is titled after the artist’s two photo books: Side Effects, published by Leica Gallery Warsaw in 2014, and OVER, self-published in 2017. Different in visuals and intentions, each series reflects a period in Kowalski’s artistic and personal journey. Surprising fact is that most of the photographs, different as they are, were taken within 13 miles of the artist’s home in Gdynia, Poland. “This is my kingdom… or my garden. I am a gardener and I visit them to say ‘Hello’ to familiar places. And sometimes I don’t know what I’ll find, so I fly wondering around, over, and over, and over again, and then the landscape starts to speak to me,” shares the artist.
An architect by training, Kowalski discovered a passion for flying early on. His courage to make the choice to pursue it laid out before him an incredible path that led him to this moment, when more than a hundred-fifty people gathered to celebrate the artist and the gallery that chose his work for its inaugural exhibition. A very apt decision given that the intent of Galerie XII Los Angeles, according to the Gallery Director, Douglas Marshall, is to focus on forward-looking exciting contemporary photographers who have not been exposed to the West Coast.
That description rightly speaks of Kowalski’s work. Engaging forms (geometrical and shapeless), symmetry and juxtaposition of incongruent elements create dramatic compositions. In the Side Effects series, the colors are brilliant and delicious (until you see ‘Toxic’ in the titles). Some images have a very textural feel. In “Side Effects, Toxic Beauty #35” (2013), what looks like the grains of sand mixed with color is almost tactile. Kowalski’s professional training is noticeable in the way the artist chooses where to focus his frame and how the elements relate to each other. Seen through his architect’s eyes, they appear as if they were drafted.
Back in 1996, when he was starting to study architecture, a friend introduced him to paragliding. It was a new field for aero enthusiasts because just a few years earlier in Communist Poland there was no private aviation and aerial photography was not allowed. After graduation, Kowalski started working in his field, but soon found himself devoting more time and energy to flying than to architecture. “It wasn’t my first passion anymore. I realized that I’d been unhappy and a bad architect or I’d find an excuse.” And he did, through photography. In 2006, he quit his day job and started offering his architectural clients aerial views of the land and construction projects.
He didn’t think of himself as a photographer at that time. “I wanted to hide myself behind the camera, just show the image and be invisible. That was the decision. When I started to fly after I quit architecture, I began sharing my observations using editorials and press agencies. I was invited to work with Panos Pictures. For photography in press, my personal feelings didn’t matter, the images were important. It was a very good situation for me: I didn’t want to tell of my emotions, I wanted to push them away from me.” Nevertheless, his artistic approach and architect’s vision brought him local and international recognition and many awards. That allowed Kowalski to focus on aerial photography full-time.
Many of the photographs that are included in the series Side Effects are from those years. They are just facts, depictions of what was below. “Each paraglider tries to be a photographer because it’s easier to show photography then to explain how it is,” says Kowalski. But in retrospect, when the images have accumulated, were talked about in the press, gained acclaim and elicited public interest, a unifying theme came forth. Side Effects series was a documentary revealing, without any judgement, what the artist calls “the costs of civilization–the human impact on nature, a feature that is not good or bad, but characteristic.”
Then came a period, when the artist chose to stay on the ground for a number of personal reasons. He tried drone photography and quickly realized it didn’t suit him. “This photography is designed on the ground. You are discovering the world by television.” Kowalski was missing the freedom and the feeling a pilot gets being in the air high above the ground. “Flying is very meditative. When I fly, I feel ‘here and now’. And I use flying as a kind of catalyst to feel that. Between the take off and the landing I need to concentrate 100% on the flight: the lines of my paraglider are the extensions of my arms; I feel the engine with all of my body. I’ve spent over four thousand hours flying, so I feel pretty comfortable in that world.”
Kowalski’s return to the air was in the winter, in the beginning of 2016. Just after fresh snow fell down. “I had an impression that I’d never seen this landscape before. I was flying in between the fog and the clouds, where you only see some structures and you don’t know what’s up or down. And flying in that way, I felt like I wanted to be alone–no drones, no other pilots–and focus on myself,” remembers the artist. “I was flying over some non-existing places. I was not interested in humans anymore.”
He started to think of why flying was so important to him. “Why can I sacrifice everything? What will stay after me? What will stay after humans? And what matters now?” It was a long process of understanding and working through the emotions that had been banished for years. Seeing the ‘portrait’ of an abandoned landscape, prompted Kowalski to start working on his second photo book, OVER. “This series,” says Marshall, “ is more monochromatic, quiet, poetic. It is personal, meditative. It’s him emotionally responding to landscape, saying what he feels when he is flying. There is more of the artist, the artist’s voice.”
The photographs are not titled, but numbered, at the artist’s request. “When you look down from the altitude of 500 feet, it’s true documentary,” says Kowalski. However, by framing the ground, he creates abstract images where the familiar man-made structures or natural elements are not readily recognizable. Parallel lines and shapes in “OVER #09” (2016) bring to mind mechanical drawings of Marcel Duchamp. “If I explain to you what is in this image, it will have one meaning, like a road sign. It’s up to you if you want to know or not, for me it’s fine either way. Very often when I fly, I also see just shapes and I don’t know what their reality is.”
The artist wants us to look at familiar things (like piers covered in snow in “OVER #09”) without preconceptions and to use our imagination; to visualize ourselves flying over them in a paraglider or an open-hull gyrocopter sitting next to him. Take a deep breath in and smell the cold air, relax and allow your body to adjust to the temperature, turn your face to the wind, feel the sunshine on your skin, and now look down.
Galerie XII Los Angeles
6150 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Wednesday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm
Note: the gallery will be closed Dec. 23 – Jan. 3 for the holidays