Get Out While You Can 
Chris Dobrowolski’s solitary way
The view from the gallery window:
Is Chris Dobrowolski constructing this landscape?

Essex landscape artist Chris Dobrowolski has raised the bar on transcendence. Things can hardly be the same now, given Dobrowolski’s reconfigured topographies—his reconfiguration of topography itself.

The question of transcendence and landscape could be posed as a kind of hedge fun management question (Dobrowolski loves to play with the lingo of the corporate and financial world). If you’re trying to take off in an experimental aircraft in which thirteen pilots in a similar situation have been killed, and there is a short wall of tight, interwoven trees in front of you, do you hedge your bets and bail out, or do you give it more juice and see what happens in the sky?

That Dobrowolski is willing to try such capers—opting variously for literal hedge and literal sky—merely means that he has the kind of gross physical courage for which young men in war get medals. Of far greater interest is the fact that Dobrowolksi’s courage infuses his aesthetic. I’ve waited a long time for this. Beauty can be brave.

Dobrowolski’s scapes—landscapes, mindscapes, escapes—are delicately rendered, lovely and complex and gorgeous. The vision here is Miltonic, a coupling of luciferian luster with the industrial sublime, every pipe and buckle and sulfurous engine precisely right. In the age of mechanical reproduction, Dobrowolski can do it all, abstract, mimetic, the whole shebang. He’s scoured the modern era, and taken what he needs, “ransacking the center,” Milton might say, “with impious hands.”

Dobrowolski both embodies the age and rises above it. His own valuation of the work should be noted but, in the main, discounted. While his work maintains the creative tension between event and artifact and hectors the participant-observer into the kind of Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole space-time freakout where a diorama might feel as large as the county of Humberside, Dobrowolski is content to laugh as if such conjunctions were merely escapade. Landscape picaresque. He told me he’d made an old car you could pedal and had some funny adventures with the police, and I imagined a hodgepodge. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The car is many things—an evocation of a particular landscape, a portion of a master raconteur’s tale, a museum piece, an ongoing vehicle for transcendence—but let’s be sure to bring the literalists on board here: those bits of pipe and rubber are pretty.

I took the kids to feel/see/hear Dobrowolski perform the other night in a converted church space on top of one of the few hills in Essex, near a pile of stone which turned out to be the oldest Roman arch in England, in the city of Colchester, which had had its heyday a couple of millennia earlier. Dobrowolski organized one version of his material as a linear progression, a sort of bildungsroman whereby the artist comes of age in a complex struggle to build a conveyance suitable to the integrity of his quest—to escape from art college. And not just any art college, but the one constructed on the same Hull pier from which Robinson Crusoe had sailed centuries earlier. The real Robinson Crusoe.

I don’t take the word of artists about their work and haven’t done, not since the day when, say, I realized that Homer seemed to have covered up Odysseus’s lies about his sailing adventures. But of course Dobrowolski is both Odysseus and Homer, and the glory is in the telling. Dobrowolski did escape from art college, over and over, in works of art and artifice from his own hands: a sailboat, a car, a hovercraft, a tank, an airplane, all of it from bits of flotsam found in the detritus of a life lived on the edge. And what stands out about all this art is how real it is, in every sense. Real sailboat, real car, real hovercraft. It’s not far from real tank and real airplane to real life, and who will bridge the gap for us if not Dobrowolski? Dobrowolski collects and masters genre—Zapruderesque documentary, airplane hydraulics, poetry, drama, welding, comedy, landscape painting—the way some people pick up seashells. His refurbishings alone suggest multiple skill sets. Is there anything Dobrowolski can’t do?

Watching Dobrowolski in action, I thought about the great escape artists of the modern era. Elvis Presley and Walter Benjamin, who almost got out (the latter made it to the Spanish border before he hung himself). Houdini—so far so good. Slavomir Rawicz, whose The Long Walk maintains its cult credentials even today and reminds us of the intertwining of event and event-production. That book, too, considers the notion, which works well either as fiction or fact, that Poles are the toughest people on the planet. Certainly Dobrowolski’s oeuvre is a love poem to his irascible dad, the Polish soldier and ex-landowner, and breaking out of childhood—self-creation—is probably the most fraught of human experiences.

If I insist upon Dowbrowolski’s triumph as a landscape artist, here in Constable country, it is not to limit the UK artist’s palate but merely to appropriate it for my own work on the Essex sublime. Can we have travel without destination? Destination has degraded travel writing to a series of predictable remarks upon the noteworthiness of landscape objects. No one visits Essex, anymore than they would the Humberside of Dowbrowolski’s pilgrimages. Essex is what you escape from. But that’s not enough. If it’s the sublime you want—and, God help me, I do—then you must escape over and over. To get to the sublime, to the transcendent, then follow Dowbrowolski’s trajectory, his flight path. And that means breaking out over and over. Once is never enough. Essex for me is both a writing project and an American’s experience of landscape, and Dowbrowolski has surely, for anyone who walks or writes or sees, vastly increased the canon of worthy sight lines.

Can you escape from Essex? Yes, repeatedly.

If you clear your palate enough, you can taste the sublime. What better place than the great muddy eastern fringes of Milton’s island?

Chris Dobrowolski is back in Essex for a while. East of England, east of Eden. As the Puritan poet said of Adam and Eve when they left the pretty garden and set to work: the world was all before them.

© 2006 David Thomson

Get Out:
Chris Dobrowolski’s “Offer Must End Soon,” at the University of Essex until 11 February and in London at Studio 1.1 Gallery, 23 February to 26 March.