Text by Anna Ratcliffe
Chris Dobrowolski is an Essex born sculptor, painter, performer and storyteller currently on show at &Model gallery, Leeds. The exhibition consists of a fifteen year retrospective of the artist’s work and is the second solo show that &Model has hosted. Dobrowolski’s work seems like a breath of fresh air in the current climate, his art (like himself) is grounded and unpretentious. Looking around the exhibition on the opening night I adhered to the rules of white-walled art galleries and peered into one of the boxes, which hung ajar on the wall. “You can open it!” Dobrowolski said, joking about the fear of touching the art. Upon entering, the gallery springs to life with sound and movement, a record starts playing, a 1960’s vacuum cleaner starts up suspending a model aeroplane in flight, a metal lid opens to reveal a tiny man in a boat drifting in the abyss with a sunken record player shipwrecked below. Instead of being an adult in an art gallery you are transported back to being a kid in a toyshop, filled with excitement and anticipation.
This giddy childhood aesthetic runs throughout the exhibition. His art represents the days before digital technology, shooting footage on super 8 and using vinyl and tape. In many pieces he employs the use of toy cars, miniature railways and figurines, which could all be forgotten in a generation. Hence his work has a nostalgic feel that endeavours to preserve the analogue. Being seemingly as fearless and naïve as a child himself,Dobrowolski has put himself in life-threatening situations without a second thought, for example building a makeshift hovercraft whose engine exploded and a tea chest airplane which was airborne for five metres before nose-diving into the ground. Despite these mishaps Dobrowolski carries on having haphazard adventures.
On the first floor we can see the results of his trip to the Antarctic where in 2008-9 he took up an unlikely three-month residency. As part of an Artists and Writers Programme Dobrowolski travelled with the British Antarctic Survey to one of the furthest corners of the world with a box of models and toys including plastic penguins, Ladybird books and a north pole action man. In his recent book Escape he writes about his journey and, despite chronic seasickness and some strange looks from the crew and scientific researchers, he took photographs of his small models in the vast Antarctic landscape. From his expedition he created dioramas staged inside wooden food boxes from the trip, using these photographs, illustrative painted landscapes and toy models. This creates pieces that tangle the real, representational and fantasy. The centrepiece is a large 12ft sledge made from gaudy gilt picture frames that he unceremoniously rode over the snow. His work is about the experimental making process, storytelling rather than the object.
Dobrowolski’s work is humorous and entertaining with every piece having an elaborate autobiographical backstory. The show includes a huge array of works that fill the three floors of &Model, the rustic worn aesthetic of the building partnering perfectly with Dobrowolski’s wooden cases and car boot sale Dinky toys: preferring a worn, lived aesthetic than anything shiny and new. The show fills you with a dreamy nostalgia but at the same time leaves you with conceptual questions to mull over.
Photographs courtesy of &Model and Denis Dalby.
Anna Ratcliffe is a recent History of Art graduate based in Leeds