Emerging Artist | Jason Kowalski

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Deserted diners. Empty gas stations. Shabby industrial neighborhoods. Southern California painter Jason Kowalski, 23, embraces them all with equal artistic fervor. “I like abandoned and forgotten places—the places you drive by and don’t pay attention to,” Kowalski explains.

Although the young painter now lives hundreds of miles away, the scenes he often paints are reminiscent of places he was surrounded by growing up in Eau Claire, WI, a city he describes as a once-thriving logging town that is now “run down and half abandoned.” Such scenes make him sad, he admits, but he is nonetheless drawn to them. He theorizes that painting forlorn and deserted places immortalizes them, in a sense, and allows them to live on. “They will eventually disappear forever. I guess I am a very nostalgic person,” Kowalski says. “I have a certain respect for buildings on the other side of the tracks.”

As a youngster in Wisconsin, Kowalski was always more interested in graphic arts than painting. But after graduating from high school, leaving Wisconsin, and entering the Laguna College of Art & Design in Laguna Beach, CA, he was exposed to an array of fine artists who were actually making a living in their chosen field. Unlike Eau Claire, Laguna Beach has a long history as an art colony, harking back to the days when early California Impressionists opened the first gallery in town in 1918. And for decades since, artists have continued to both live here and visit—some to paint the spectacular coastline. “All my neighbors are artists. That’s rare to find. It’s kind of a bohemia,” Kowalski says of his loft home near the beach.

Kowalski isn’t exactly following in the footsteps of the early California Impressionists, since he chooses to paint the tattered and gritty side of life. What makes his scenes unique, whether they are referencing the Midwest or California, is their distinctive textural quality. Kowalski is fond of incorporating text into his paintings—slivers of cut-up newspapers and magazines. In a Kowalski piece, for example, a newspaper clipping may form the roofline of a building or represent a crack in the concrete. He isn’t necessarily interested in communicating a specific message to a viewer with the text. But he does find it intriguing that viewers frequently puzzle over his random word choices. “The text is visual and historical and brings a human element into a painting,” Kowalski explains.

Terry Martin, owner of Terrence Rogers Fine Art in Santa Monica and Palm Springs, has represented the artist for a year. Martin says he rarely takes on new artists, but when he saw Kowalski’s atmospheric scenes sprinkled with text, he decided to represent him on the spot. For him, the pieces possessed the all-important “wow factor.” Soon after, in June 2009, his Santa Monica gallery presented a show of the artist’s work. It sold out. “I love the edge Jason’s paintings walk, where the uninterrupted landscape meets the urbanscape. That’s an intersection I get excited about,” Martin says.

“He has an unmistakable joy of painting. He takes traditional painting principles, uses contemporary materials and imagery, and pushes everything to its limit.” For his part, Kowalski says his work is both a statement of the effect of time on a location as well as a vehicle to bring attention to things that are often forgotten because they may not sport a fresh coat of paint. The public has a difficult time looking past the blemishes, he says. Kowalski describes his creative mission this way: I want to make a beautiful image from ugly subject matter and give people a new respect for places they overlook.”

Terrence Rogers Fine Art, Santa Monica and Palm Springs, CA; www.jasonkowalski.com.

Featured in May 2010